Where, then, to start the story of the Notre Dame football coach's flaming fall from grace? Upon George O'Leary's hotel bed that night, as his hand keeps rubbing his face and his lips whisper, "Oh, Jesus. . .oh, Jesus. . .what will my mother say?" Or at the Minnesota Vikings office of George's old high school quarterback, who quietly shuts the door so no one will hear him sob?
No. They're both too close.
Perhaps on the laptop screen of the columnist in Chicago as the words "low-rent fraud" flash to life in his third sentence? Or on the sketch pad of The Orange County Register cartoonist as he draws George with a Pinocchio nose at a job interview, saying, "I can fly if I concentrate really hard."
No. They're both too far away.
How about in the kitchen of a white Cape Cod in Liverpool, N.Y.? Yes, that's it, the kitchen where an old Italian has just come to a halt, electrocuted by the radio news of the lieson George O'Leary's résumé and of his resignation on Dec. 14, five days after taking his dream job at Notre Dame. Luke LaPorta sags into a chair. His eyes close, and 23 years collapse: He's sitting in his office as athletic director at Liverpool High in the summer of 1978, asking his young Irish Catholic football coach a question so loaded, so personal, that he can barely squeeze it from his throat: "George. . .are there any inconsistencies in how you've represented yourself?"
Luke knows the answer. The school superintendent, Virgil Tompkins, has called him aside and informed him of inaccuracies in George's claims about his playing career and postgraduate credits, and now the heat's on Luke, who hired George over 84 other applicants the year before. But Luke still hopes against hope that it's all a misunderstanding, because if this man's a liar, then the world's flat and the moon's square and eagles are no better than cockroaches.
George flushes red. "A lot of people do that," he replies.
Maybe some other language has a word for what runs through Luke. It's something close to nausea and not far from deep, deep sorrow. "Yeah," Luca finally says. "I've got a long résumé, but. . .it all checks out." Luca—that's what his father, born in southern Italy, named him—comes from a Long Island neighborhood teeming with ethnic groups. So does George. Both know the dictionary of meanings contained in small gestures and flickers of eyes. George's shoulders shrug, his lips purse, and his eyes cut to one side. The look, Luca calls it. The look means:
That's all I'm going to say.
That's the way of the world.
You and I, we understand each other.
There's no need to do anything.
We'll just let it lie.
Luca swallows. He knows it's true: Everyone lies. He knows that if he chooses compassion, he chooses complicity. His last name, in Italian, means "the door." Now he stands at the portal of George O'Leary's career, holding his fate. LaPorta can open. LaPorta can shut.
Luca sits, guts turning, in his office in June 1978. He sits, guts turning, in his kitchen in December 2001. Again he weighs a life against a lie.
A letter rests in Luca's wrinkled hands. It arrived just a few days after George O'Leary stared out his hotel room's second-story window and decided that 20 feet wasn't enough to do the job.
Dear Coach LaPorta,
I want to thank Coach O'Leary for all he did for my son Rich. . . .Because of Coach O'Leary, my son behaved himself in high school and became one of his class's leaders. He developed respect for his parents (that alone was wonderful), valued his physical body, became one of a team, and stretched himself to produce "110%."... As an adult, my son carried his leadership and teaching skills to other boys and girls and has coached in methods O'Leary instilled in him as a teen. He is both a better parent and a better coach because of Coach O'Leary.
I am saddened to hear of Coach O'Leary's difficulties. My prayer is that they don't stop Coach from doing what he does best—coach! Because somewhere there are other teens and young men who would benefit from it. . . .
I also thank you for your wisdom in hiring O'Leary. . . .
Rich Wiggins's Mom
Luca is 77. He's determined the fates of liars and birth-certificate forgers—passed judgment in the Danny Almonte case just last summer—during his quarter century on the board of Little League Baseball International. As a boy during the Depression, working at his family's gas station, he was astonished when adults volunteered to pump their own gas so they could squeeze out an extra nickel's worth and then plead that their hands had slipped. But then, Luca himself filched dimes from the till, from his own blood, and clamped his lips when his grandfather confronted him.
What should he have done that day, that moment after George gave him the look? Could he have averted the personal catastrophe that lay in silent wait for George for the next 23 years, gathering, girding? What would you have done?
Say nothing. That's all the old man wants of you for now. First you must know George and the soil that grew his lies, maybe your lies, my lies. First you must know the net effect of his 55 years on earth and lay that against the net effect of the sin.
Here. Take one. Read it. It's George's curriculum vitae. Not the bogus one claiming that he lettered in football for three years at the University of New Hampshire and holds a master's degree in education from New York University. Not a bare-bones list of jobs and dates. A man is so much more than that—doesn't vitae mean "of life"? Then you can decide. Then you'll have the right to make Luca's choice.
GEORGE J. O'LEARY
BIRTH DATE: Aug. 17, 1946
STATUS: Married with four children
EXPERIENCE: 1953–60 Altar boy
George was seven when he first played with fire. "Who had the matches?" demanded his mother. George and his four siblings shrugged and shook their heads. A liar? In Peggy O'Leary's house? A liar would kneel in salt or get an earful of God and His mother. There had to be accountability in Peggy O'Leary's house.
She wasn't a cartoon ogre. She was a splendidly spunky sort—still is—a dandy fox-trotter with sparkling blue eyes and no hesitation about laughing at herself. A woman born to raise boys, all four of them: a classic Irish mom. She pointed to the bathtub and the singe marks made by the matches. "The Blessed Mother's watching!" she cried. Our Lady. Notre Dame. The statuette in the living room. "She'll tell me who did it!" Mrs. O'Leary cried.
George swallowed. He was about to become an altar boy. A few days passed, George tiptoeing around his mother and God's mother until the supper dishes were done. That's when the family always knelt under Our Lady's gaze and said the rosary, the boys machine-gunning their 10 Hail Marys apiece so they could get back to playing ball and dying a thousand deaths as their sister, Margaret, stretched each theeeee and thyyyyy from here to kingdom come.
Then it happened. George reached again for the matchbox above the sink. Every kid played with matches, but George had been warned, and now he was going to play with fire a second time. Mrs. O'Leary burst into the kitchen, grabbed him and banished him to his bedroom. "When your father comes home," she shouted, "you'll be taken away to live in the Home for Wayward Children!"
Dusk fell. Dad entered the high-rise projects where the O'Learys lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. A wee scrap of a man, just over 5 1/2 feet tall and 140 pounds, but full to the brim with pep and piss and pun was George the Father. He'd drop to the floor in his 50s to bang out push-ups, clapping his hands after each one, and when he blinked the telltale twinkle from his eye and told his kids that the jagged scar across his gut—the result of an ulcer operation that removed three quarters of his stomach—actually stemmed from his belly dive onto a grenade to save a buddy during World War II, they believed him. After all, he'd been a paratrooper, and who on earth was a more loyal soul than he?
Dad headed to George's bedroom, hotfooted by his wife's glower. He shut the door and confronted his son. Dad was renowned for his brutal honesty, but Dad, God rest his soul, was a pushover. The sight of a forlorn child seemed to mine misery from the ninth year of his own life, when his father had vanished. "You can't play with matches, George," he rebuked his son. Job done, he melted. It wasn't really that serious, Son, and give Mom a day or two, she'd lighten up, and maybe he could sneak young George a bite to eat or slip him a nickel for candy.
George's older brother, Peter, had a high IQ and magnificent wrists, was a .500-hitting high schooler whom opponents would defend with four outfielders. Terry, a year younger than George, was a straight-A student with a grade-A jump shot, a future Suffolk County high school tournament MVP. Margaret, three years younger, was sweetness itself, no worries there. George? Well, let's be honest: George was no slickie. Thick and blunt were the adjectives his family hung on him, a mostly B and C student who couldn't dance or carry a tune in a houseful of hams and who was teased for the half inch of elevation he got on his jump shot. But, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, there was no more loyal brother or buddy in a tight spot and no more hard-nosed bundle of will and self-assurance on a ball field. He'd play two-on-two tackle football on pavement, and then when he wrenched his neck in a helmet-to-helmet collision during his sophomore year in high school, the bedside contraption rigged by the family doctor to hold George's neck in traction lasted two days. "This is bull," snapped George, who dismantled the device, practiced the next day and played the following weekend.
By then there were eight children, and the O'Learys had outgrown the Manhattan apartment and moved to a modest Cape Cod in blue-collar Central Islip, Long Island. But a kid still couldn't hide anything in that home, not with the four boys jammed into one bedroom, the four girls into another, a grandma and great uncle in the third bedroom, George's mother and father in the last one and the church waiting outside the door with hellfire unless you confessed. George didn't even try to carve out his own place. Hebunched elbow-to-elbow with all the other males on Saturdays in front of the black-and-white television, hollering the Irish home against the best that the WASPs could throw at them, no one ever saying it, only feeling it: Notre Dame football was everything honest and right, and if that Fighting Irish Catholic 11 could own the American pie, then the dozen crammed in this house could at least have a slice of it.
When the game on TV ended, the boys tumbled outside and lived it all over again, deep into dark. Then came Sunday and even more Irish in the house, grandparents born and bred in the old land, along with aunts and uncles and cousins, gathering in the basement to sing the old songs on birthdays, anniversaries and holidays.
So how could the roast beef just disappear? It couldn't! Out with it, demanded Mrs. O'Leary. Her children blinked at her, all denying knowledge. Well, then, we'll see. For three days she served sad leftovers for supper, waiting for the children to crack, but by then they'd been hardened, known suppers during hard times that were just a plateful of mashed potatoes tinted ominously red by baby-food beets. The Blessed Mother works in mysterious ways, her wonders to perform. Sarge, the family mutt, sauntered in from the backyard with the string from the roast beef dangling from his arse, and the O'Learys at last sat down to some decent grub.
Have you located it yet? Where could a lie, an exaggeration that would make a national disgrace of a man, take root in that house? A home where no one dared preen or puff himself, where Dad dismissed airs or boasts with just three letters—"SPS," for Self-Praise Stinks—and any boy who made himself out to be one inch more than he was risked humiliation. "All right, who is it?" Mrs. O'Leary asked, chortling one day as she finished the laundry. "Who's the big head who thinks he needs an extra-large jock?"
No one owned up. Not George, not Terry, not Peter, and for damn sure not Sarge.
1964–68: Sandbagger, Bartender, Road Paver, Landscaper, Mover, Student
When you're 18, there's no explaining it. Sometimes everything you love is everything you hate. Maybe it was the smell of four boys in a bedroom just after a ball game, maybe it was singing the same song from the Auld Sod for the 32nd time, maybe it was that eternal flame underneath that infernal pot of Mrs. O'Leary's boiling potatoes. Maybe it was the fact that Dubuque was the only college that showed a glimmer of interest in George. Maybe that's why he was suddenly on the road, the first O'Leary to leave the fold, barreling through a cornfield on a 24-hour Greyhound bus ride to Iowa, a boy who'd never been farther from home than the Jersey shore.
A glimmer, mind you. Not a scholarship. Maybe a grand in financial aid, a bit of an insult, really, after George had quarterbacked his high school team—more on grit than on grace—to an undefeated season. At Dubuque he found himself one of five quarterbacks, promptly converted to bottom-of-the-depth-chart fullback, an out-of-place Noo Yawker on a bad Division III team cheered by a few hundred fans, the glory of his senior season and the warmth of his big family fading, fading. . .gone.
He knew more than the damn coach did. He was sure of it. He barely stepped on the football field all fall. No, that's a lie. He cut across it at night to get to the Disabled American Veterans Bar to quaff a half-dozen Hamm's. The future coach of Notre Dame? They'd have howled in the locker room if you'd pointed at him and said that. He scraped by academically, quit football and wouldn't have returned for his sophomore year if he hadn't felt so listless that he couldn't stir himself to apply to another school. There was one highlight that second year: the road trip. To South Bend. He walked the hallowed grounds of Notre Dame and sensed the magic that his grades and football skills wouldn't let him touch.
A third helping of Iowa was out of the question. His dad, who'd worked his way up from school custodian to school board president and postmaster of Central Islip, had come to be known as the Godfather, the townsman with the most connections and the deepest devotion to arranging jobs for any man he deemed a good man. He saw the lost look in his boy's eyes and grew uneasy. He turned to Walt Mirey, an administrator in the C.I. school district who'd played football at New Hampshire. Somehow Dad had to wedge the kid through college. Mirey got him in. Dad exhaled. So long, George!
George? What was he doing back at the front door? A week and a half into August preseason camp, George quit the team, quit before he began and took a bus home. Cripes, what was the point? He'd be ineligible for a year because of the transfer, owed a bundle for student loans and couldn't bear another four-eyed professor slowly squeezing his privates in a midterm vise.
He walked through the door. He couldn't meet his father's stare. He hated letting down the kind of man who, the first time he ever flew in an airplane, jumped out of it, on a paratrooper training mission in Georgia. The kind who always forgave you.
"So... what're you going to do, George?" his father asked.
"I don't know. Go in the service, maybe."
"You need to get back to college, George. You're not a quitter. You're better than that."
Three days of unbearable silence later George returned to New Hampshire. His playing life was over, his pilot light barely aflame, but in the next two years he worked enough as a part-time bartender, landscaper, mover and paver to know what he didn't want, so he hit the books, or at least tapped them, enough to get a B.S. in phys ed.
And he met a girl. Bumped into her at a party and was so taken by her that just before the next bash at his frat house, he concocted a doozy. He talked Sharon Littlefield into coming as a blind date for a nonexistent friend of his, then offered his regrets when she showed up and the buddy didn't—but, hey, now that she was there, why not be his date? She didn't mind, because there was nothing slick about his deception; truth is, he was a little rough around the edges. She liked his blue eyes, his blond hair and his swagger, and she so prized her own privacy and independence that it was O.K. that he was a loner. They married before he graduated. She would look back on that first date, four children later, as such a wonderful little lie.
1969–74: Phys-Ed Teacher, Driver's Ed Teacher, Assistant Football Coach
Surprise! The son of Central Islip's school board president secured his first real job in 1969—as a teacher and assistant football coach at Central Islip High. "It was almost," says George's youngest brother, Tom, "as if he'd become Dad's project."
Take a young man. Place him in front of a group of kids just a few years younger than he is. He must give them direction when he's barely begun to find his own. He must seal off all his own doubts so they'll believe and follow. Make sure they never do what he did: quit. What's a young coach but an elaborate bluff, a careful construction of small lies? What's a successful coach but one so convincing that even he comes to believe the bluff, and turns it into truth?
But this was a good lie, right? A boy becoming a man in a world where everyone lies had to figure that out. This sort of lie his country rewarded, for its coaches played the role that tribal elders—the ones entrusted to take boys and turn them, through rites of passage, into men—played in other lands. George started driving up and down the East Coast, attending football clinics at which these elders held court, in quest of knowledge and a model.
In Washington, D.C., he found one. Here was fire, here was aura, here was Woody Hayes. You have to do it right, the Ohio State coach thundered, and your players have to do it right, every time! Accountability! Integrity! Trust! In four more towns George heard Woody. Woody's slogans became George's slogans. Woody's hero, Patton, became George's. Woody's realization—that raw honesty could be an astonishingly effective motivating tool—became George's eureka. George caught fire. Then breathed it.
He descended the cellar steps of Ralph G. Reed Junior High School, a few blocks from C.I. High. Beneath the low ceiling pipes he painted a wide purple circle on the floor. That's what George began doing, drawing circles. If you weren't in the circle, weren't with him on his mission, as his old high school teammate and coaching partner, Tommy Black, put it, "you might think that he had a stick up his ass." But if you were in the circle, you'd thrash anything that threatened it. George filled the purple circle with weights and bars and benches, raised them on platforms, lit them with track lights to make the circle more sacred, christened it the Pride Area and demanded that his players return to it three days a week, year round. No conversation was permitted there. Only screaming. George and dozens of boys raised an ear-shattering din as they encircled a puff-cheeked offensive lineman straining to surpass his personal-best bench press—You can do it, Billy. It's fourth-and-one. How much do you want it? How much?!
"Wow," thought Billy Neuse, a Long Island guy who used to slam Hamm's with George in Dubuque and caught up with him in Central Islip, "is that the same guy?"
1975–79: High School Head Coach
Watch closely now. George just left the web of family and favors, of connections and loyalty. George just left Dad.
His heels clacked through the cavernous halls of Liverpool High in upstate New York. A man could get lost there: Nearly 4,000 students surged through the corridors, and most couldn't tell George how to find the main office. A man could be found there: Ten miles away stood Syracuse University and something impossible to see from Central Islip—a major-college football program.
It was 1977. He was 31. He looked at the sea of strange faces. They hadn't a clue that he'd labored six years as an assistant, waiting for the C.I. head coach to step aside, then gone 16-1-1 in two seasons as head coach and been named Suffolk County coach of the year. No one knew him in Liverpool, the way no one had known his grandparents 70 years earlier when they had left behind a land where everything was set in stone to come to one where everything was fluid and people kept moving, kept selling themselves to strangers, jockeying for position, an upgrade. Where a man was free to tell anyone anything to prove his worth, or his product's worth, and the line between marketing andlying was so fine that he could find himself right on top of it before he knew he was there, then stumble across it by sheer momentum. As George's brother Tom would ask, "Is anyone trying to tell me that résumés are truthful? In the America we live in, the willingness to lie on a résumé is an indication of how much you want the job."
Something was missing in the persona George had built, some mortar that would better hold the bricks in place, some grout that would make the wall more impenetrable. A man who made quitting seem so repulsive, so weak, who convinced so many boys that anything was possible if they refused to quit. . . .Why, he couldn't have quit, could he? So, sure, he said, there where no one knew him, sure, he'd played college ball at New Hampshire. Somehow the lie contained a deeper truth about George, an updated one. The man he'd become would've gutted it out at New Hampshire, not to mention Dubuque—which he didn't mention.
Funny, the lie didn't really stick in the altar boy's throat. It didn't torture Mrs. O'Leary's son. Hell, how had Dad, virtually blind in his left eye, passed the physical to become a paratrooper? By memorizing the eye chart! By pulling a fast one to get his foot in the door. And if Dad hadn't hit a tree on his last training jump and the doctor who examined him hadn't discovered his disability, he probably would've been killed in Italy like so many of his training partners and that deception would've been hailed in his eulogy as proof of his courage and patriotism.
In truth, the subject of George's past rarely arose. "He was such an awe-inspiring coach, it seemed like he was born that way," says Tim Green, an All-America defensive lineman who played under George in high school and college, then became a lawyer, writer and TV commentator. "People were terrified of him. One time at practice someone said ouch. George said, 'Ouch? Who the hell just said ouch? My goddam wife doesn't say ouch! My goddam little girl doesn't say ouch! Everybody hit the ground! One hundred up-downs!' Sure, some walked away from him bruised, but we all walked away from him better. To have great rewards you must have great effort. George showed me how. He gave me the blueprint."