SPORTS BOOKS: Hoag driven to tell the Lyman Hall story “Before the Picture Fades”

WALLINGFORD — Steve Hoag is probably the only football coach to game plan while listening, obsessively, to the “Purple Rain” album by Prince and The Revolution.

He is, without question, the only coach (and Ph.D) to write so deeply about Lyman Hall High School.

Hoag’s new book, “Before the Picture Fades,” canvasses the history of his alma mater, from its founding in 1916 through the emergence of its renowned basketball teams of the early and mid-20th century to the Class M state championship football team of 1985, of which Hoag played a major role as the defensive coordinator for head coach Phil Ottochian.

“Before the Picture Fades” isn’t merely history and rah-rah. It casts a critical eye on decisions made to further one sport (basketball) at the expense of another (football).

It’s also an unrequited love story written by a 1986 Lyman Hall graduate who, for all his accomplishments in life, which include running the school’s Hall of Fame for nearly 40 years, wanted more than anything to “wear the jersey and wear the numbers.”

“Before the Picture Fades”: This is what it sounds like when Trojans cry and cheer.

“This book was 2 ½ years in the writing, but a lifetime of love and devotion to a school that broke my heart more than a few times,” Hoag inscribed in a copy to one reader.

This Thursday night, at The Library Wine Bar and Bistro on North Main Street, “Before the Picture Fades,” published by Inspiring Voices, a division of Author House, will have its formal launch between 5-8 p.m.

A number of people who appear in the pages, including Coach Ottochian, players of the 1985 state championship team and earlier stars such as Mike Nesti and Rick Angelone, are expected to attend.

“Before the Picture Fades” is the fourth book by Hoag, an educator in the state Department of Education for more than 35 years. His first three focused on intimate relationships: “A Son’s Handbook, Bringing Up Mom with Alezheimer’s/Dementia,” the romantic novel “Whisper of a Kiss” and “Vows.”

Though its subject matter may be basketball and football, “Before the Picture Fades” is no less about intimate relationships, starting with Hoag’s with his school.

Stricken with a blood disorder as an adolescent, Hoag could not be the athlete he wanted to be, having instead to swallow considerable pride and settle for being team manager.

“I wanted to be special; I wanted Lyman Hall to love me. I wanted them to love me like I love it,” Hoag said in a recent interview. “It was always tough. Even now, I meet teachers and coaches at Lyman Hall and I say, ‘Take care of my high school.’ Some walk away from me, but it’s how I feel.”

In one respect, “Before the Picture Fades” is a coming-of-age book about the author. It opens with a young Steve sneaking through the woods between his house and Doolittle Park to watch the early 1950s Lyman Hall football teams practice, hardly knowing what Lyman Hall was or football or the “big H” at the end of the field.

It closes with first-person accounts, written in real time, from a coach ahead of the curve, devising sophisticated blitz packages that were a hallmark of the 1985 state championship team.

In between appear the major figures of Lyman Hall history, starting with Robert Early, the pioneer principal, and Langdon Fernald, the coach Early hired to build Lyman Hall athletics as a means of galvanizing the school and its students.

Tales of triumph and travail follow — the winning teams and the losing teams; Ernie Bercier’s buzzer-beating basket to beat East Haven in the 1953 Class B state final and all the glorious moments; the monumental figure of Fred Schipke, for whom the Lyman Hall gymnasium is named; and the greatest Trojans who trod the hardwood, from Charles Inguaggiato to Fran Stupakevich.

The story is served in short, digestible chapters. The approach is well-organized and chronological — in direct contrast to conversations with Hoag, which are as tangential as they are entertaining.

If so, it’s because Hoag is steeped in Lyman Hall history. An admitted fanatic, Hoag has soaked up LH lore — and accrued a house full of memorabilia — from his student days through his coaching days through his work on the school Hall of Fame.

“With each one of them, you read their stories and a lot of stuff you don’t get a chance to put in,” said Hoag, who introduces the Hall of Fame honorees at the annual induction ceremony. “I could listen to these guys forever. I’d sit there for hours and listen and I’m taking notes like a college freshman, and for no other reason because I wanted to.”

The impetus to weave the stories into a book was the pandemic. Living legends are mere mortals, as are chroniclers of the times.

“COVID put me in touch with mortality,” said Hoag. “My brother had gotten it. There are people in the book who had gotten it. So, ‘Wait a minute; maybe we don’t escape this.’ You don’t know.

“And my daughters grew up wth me being fanatical about this,” Hoag continued, referring to his twins, Maureen and Kathleen, 1998 graduates who led Lyman Hall to the Class LL state softball championship that year. “They kind of let me know in no uncertain terms, ‘Daddy, don’t let anything happen to you, because if it does, we’re throwing all your (memorabilia) out.’”

Thus Hoag, who has attended the funeral of more than one player from the 1985 team, was driven to write before the picture literally faded.

He also wanted to provide history’s proper canvas to show how individual deeds and doers fit into the larger whole.

“As I’m reminded sometimes, ‘You’re so wrapped up in how you feel about Lyman Hall, will anybody care now or 20 years from now?’ I didn’t write it for that reason. I wrote it because I had to write it or it would never be told,” said Hoag. “People in town that have any affinity for what’s happening now, if they care, it’s worthy of their attention to at least understand who Charlie Inguaggiato was.

“There’s no monument to some of those great moments, and most of those people from those graduating classes are dead. Even in the 1985 team: Eddie Charbonneau made this hit in the waning moments of the 1985 state championship, and he’s gone. Guy Russo, who dominated and never got the credit he deserved, he’s gone.”

“Before the Picture Fades” hits its peak with that 1985 state championship season and the behind-the-curtains look at a team so small in number — there were but 24 on the roster — assistant coaches had to dress for practice.

With the championship victory at UConn over heavily favored Middletown, all the threads of Hoag’s book bind together.

“Now, at this moment, a lifetime of love for my Lyman Hall stood still in my heart,” he wrote. “Suddenly, all of the games, the losses, wins, the passion, and collection of memories since the 1950s came together.”

Being hoisted upon the shoulders of the victorious Trojans Hoag considers “the singular honor of my life.”

And yet, in the end, blaring glory washes into quiet — the quiet bus ride home from Storrs for an exhausted team that had, as embodied in Greg Myerson and the separated shoulder he insisted on playing through, utterly emptied the barrel to get over the top.

“The void left by a dream now realized,” as Hoag wrote.

Hoag speaks of a “great loneliness,” both in the moment of triumph on the field and in the preparation leading up to it and in the empty Lyman Hall parking lot after everyone else had departed at the end of that magical December day in 1985.

The little boy and his “need for heroic figures who might fill his thoughts in the alone moments” grew into the innovative coach putting in solitary hours of film study and game prep in a small room off his garage, the needle of the record player running across the grooves of “Purple Rain” over and over with no one else listening.

How many hours spent compiling this book? A labor of unrequited love? Of vanity? Of saving time in a bottle?

Maybe all of these things. And now it is there, on the shelf, 400 pages spanning 100 years, enclosed in permanence between two covers.

It is about one school in one town. Any school in any town should cherish such a treasure.

With local school, politics and coronavirus news being more important now than ever, please help our newsroom deliver the coverage you deserve. Please support Local news.

More From This Section