Dick Schafrath: Can’t Turn Down a Challenge

My new book “Pass the Nuts” is now available. Here’s a sample from the book—taken from Chapter 5.

Dick Schafrath wanted to meet for lunch after his doctor’s appointment with a shoulder specialist in May 2011.

“How did it go at the doctor’s office?” I asked.

“Not good,” said Schafrath.

Twelve seasons at left tackle for the Browns had left him wracked with arthritis in his shoulders and back and there was no hope for improvement. He was 74 years old. He was in constant pain and he refused to take painkillers.

That was the least of his health problems over the years. He battled cancer and won. He had a heart attack and doctors told him he wouldn’t live beyond 1990. He had a pacemaker implanted in his chest. Now his long-range goal, he said, was to set the state longevity record for a living person. Since he plans to have a lot of time on his hands, he started taking piano lessons and learned to tap dance.

He also had a short-term goal, which was the reason for our meeting. Having survived a series of insane physical challenges over the years, he was preparing to undertake another one.

“I want to ride a horse across Ohio like the Pony Express did,” said Schafrath. “I want to follow the trail Lincoln took when he crossed Ohio.”

“And why do you want to do that?”

“I want to deliver a letter from one side of Ohio to the other faster than the Post Office,” said Schafrath.

Essentially, he wanted to race the post office just for the hell of it.

Schafrath said he already had lined up four horses. He planned to alternate them. He figured it would take about 30 hours of non-stop riding.

“What is my role in this?” I asked.

“You may know some organization or cause that I could ride for,” he said.

“Maybe an auto dealer will sponsor your ride,” I said. “After all, it worked out so well back in 1971.”

Schafrath really is a glutton for punishment. In June 1971, Schafrath ran from Cleveland Stadium to Maurer Field, his high school football field in Wooster, on a dare from George Lamb, who owned the Chevrolet dealership in Wooster. Lamb said that if Schafrath completed the 62-mile run, most of it at night and all of it on busy public roads, he would give him the use of a car for a year.

Many people thought Lamb was a sucker to make such a wager. Schafrath’s freshman football coach at Wooster High School, Vic McIntyre, remembered Schafrath’s incredible capacity for running.

“He lived on a farm about five miles outside of town. He would put his younger brothers on the school bus each morning and he would run behind it,” said McIntyre.

“And if the bus made enough stops, I would beat it to school,” Schafrath claimed.

Schafrath won the bet and got the car but it ended his football career. The run took 14 hours. When he reached Maurer Field, medics were waiting and he was taken directly to the hospital with an IV needle stuck in his arm. He never recovered. When training camp began, Schafrath’s legs were shot. Halfway through the season he surrendered his left tackle position to Doug Dieken.

In his book, Heart of a Mule, Schafrath blames Lamb, morning disc jockey Jim Runyon, downtown Cleveland restaurant owner Pat McIntyre and me for “egging” him on. He rightfully focused on Lamb. The rest of us were more or less bystanders. We had signed up for nothing more than a good time. We harbored no malice toward Schafrath.

“This run was an obsession for George Lamb,” Schafrath wrote in his book. “His preparation was elaborate and precise. He had organized a steering committee months earlier that met weekly at Pat Joyce’s Tavern. He had formed subcommittees with different responsibilities—sheriff and police escort, departure plans, arrival plans, media, medical and refreshments.”

The run began at eight o’clock on Friday night from Cleveland Stadium. Schafrath’s younger brother, Mike, ran with him.

Schafrath picks up the story in his book:

“There was a crowd of about one hundred onlookers gathered to cheer us off. Soon after, the George Lamb committee arrived dressed in full running gear, each carrying a cold can of beer.”

Schafrath recalled that Lamb had hired Weasel Rosenberg, the bugler from Thistledown Racetrack, to start the run. Everyone cheered when Weasel sounded the call to the post and they all started running up West Third Street. Lamb’s committee peeled off at St. Clair Ave. and about 20 of them adjourned to the bar of the Hawley House, a turn-of-the-century hotel that was patronized mostly by panhandlers and the homeless. All of Lamb’s committee members were his drinking buddies, half a notch above panhandlers and the homeless.

Back to the book:

“Mike and I were following a van driven by my wife, loaded with emergency stuff, water, food, extra shoes, clothes, flashlights, bandages, etc. I told her we were going to cheat every once in a while. I planned to jump into the back seat every five miles and rest for a mile or so. But before our first five-mile marker, the van started to overheat. Oh yes, I forgot to mention that the van belonged to George Lamb. We did not see her again until forty miles down the road seven hours later! My cheating plan would not have worked anyway because Lamb had paid a deputy sheriff to follow me every inch of the road to Wooster.

“Local high school track runners would appear and run with us a few miles in nearly every town we passed through. We never slowed our pace.

“About forty-five miles and nine hours out, I started cramping and feeling a terrible pain in my neck, knees, ankles and feet. Bad, constant pain. The pain went from the top of my head to the bottoms of my feet. Everyone, including George, was now begging me to stop. He said he’d still give me the car. It was already a great effort. But, no, I was the Mule. I kept limping along.

“At 11 a.m., fourteen-and-a-half hours from when we started, Mike and I arrived at Wooster Maurer Field to a crowd of local cheerers. We waved and said thanks, but because of cramps and dehydration, I was put onto a stretcher by an emergency crew, slid into an ambulance and driven directly to the hospital. I had lost nearly thirty pounds. They fed me fluids intravenously for a couple of hours. As I rested, I had a big smile from ear to ear—I kept thinking, car, I hope you’re ready to travel!”

Browns training camp opened four weeks later with a new head coach, Nick Skorich, and a new offensive line coach, Ray Prochaska. Skorich knew Schafrath well. He had been an assistant coach on the staff for seven years. But Skorich was impatient with the veterans. They stayed with Schafrath for half the season and then moved Dieken ahead of him. Schafrath’s glorious football career was over. He was selected for seven Pro Bowls. He won a college national championship at Ohio State in 1957 and he was the starting left tackle on the Browns’ 1964 championship team.

Nobody was more committed than Schafrath. Halfway through his career he looked for an edge. Performance enhancing drugs? Not a chance. Hypnosis? Yes. He went to a hypnotist to improve his concentration. The night before a game he could visualize every play and how he would block it. He introduced right tackle Monte Clark to hypnotism. They would sometimes have “booster” sessions with the hypnotist once or twice during the season.

He told me this while we were drinking one night in Pat Joyce’s saloon downtown during the off-season. The next day I called him and said I wanted to write a story about his hypnosis.

“Please wait until I retire,” Schafrath said. “Bill Nelsen will make life miserable for us if he finds out.”

Nelsen was the quarterback and he had a playful personality, but sometimes it had a sharp, biting edge. With Nelsen leading the way, the razzing in the locker room would have been relentless.

When Schafrath retired several years later, I called him and asked about the hypnosis story. That was fine. We went over it again. I called Monte Clark and asked him if he wanted to participate. He was already retired and was an assistant coach with the Miami Dolphins.

“Please leave my name out,” Clark said. “I want to be a head coach some day and club owners will think I’m some kind of a nut, going to a hypnotist.”

I did not include Clark and he did become head coach of the Detroit Lions. It didn’t last long. Nobody connected with the Detroit Lions in those days lasted long. I don’t know if I did Clark a favor or not.

But now it was over. The halcyon days belonged to antiquity. There was a time, though, when everybody wanted Schafrath. When he was a senior at Wooster High School, the Cincinnati Reds tried to persuade him to sign a baseball contract. Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes sat in the kitchen of the Schafrath farmhouse with Schafrath’s mother and father and romanced them. Blanton Collier, head coach at Kentucky at the time, sent an assistant coach to Wooster and told him not to return without Schafrath.

“The assistant coach checked into a hotel a few miles away and every day he would drive over to the farm and help my father with the chores. Finally my mother told him that if he was going to spend so much time there he should move into the house. We had a bedroom for him. And so he did. He stayed about a week,” Schafrath told me many years ago.

“I felt obligated about that and told my mother I was going to call Blanton and tell him I was coming to Kentucky. She said I couldn’t make that call until I called Woody and told him first. I couldn’t do that, so I went to Ohio State.”

He had not finished his studies when he was drafted by the Browns in 1960. He was selected in the second round, the 23rd pick in the entire draft. He never forgot his unfinished business at Ohio State, however. He had promised his mother that he would graduate from college, so he did. He got his degree on Aug. 27, 2006, at the age of 69. He earned a bachelor’s degree in sports and leisure studies, a curriculum seemingly designed only for Dick Schafrath.

Dick said that Ohio State coach Jim Tressel put him on a football scholarship, but I don’t think he meant that literally.

“I had tutors and four girls to type my papers on a computer,” Dick said.

Let’s put it this way. It was like being on scholarship.

In any event, I’m sure Dick’s mother is happy.

I must say that he did very well without a degree. During his football days he worked in public relations with Joe Madigan, a well-known Cleveland PR man. He owned a canoe livery in Loudon­ville, Ohio. He entered Republican politics and was elected to the Ohio General Assembly as a state senator, an office he held for 14 years from 1986 to 2000. He could hold his head high. He was an honest politician. Asked about a controversial bill that had just been signed into law, he told a reporter from The Plain Dealer, “I’d say we just screwed the people in this state equally from both sides of the aisle.”

He wrote a book.

He married four times and had seven children.

Here was one busy guy, but he always was drawn to the physical stuff. Besides the 62-mile run, he wrestled a bear and he paddled non-stop across Lake Erie in a canoe, after twice failing and almost going down in high waves.

The first attempt came with a disc jockey who was no help paddling. Sports announcer Casey Coleman was his partner on the second attempt.

“I’ll never forget Casey sitting in the back of the canoe drinking a beer without a worry in the world while we sank three miles out. We had a rescue boat that saved us but we lost the canoe,” Schafrath said.

After he underwent surgery for stomach and intestinal cancer, Schafrath made his third attempt at a Lake Erie crossing and that time he made it. The trip took an exhausting 17½ hours and Schafrath was taken to the hospital again.

Finally, having passed his 74th birthday, he wanted to make a mad dash across Ohio on a horse. Keep in mind that he almost died when he collapsed of heart failure in a parking lot back in 1986 and he’s been on some form of life support ever since. His pacemaker fires so often he must have the battery replaced regularly.

I can think of only one way this saga will end. He will fall off his horse at the Indiana line, where George Lamb will be waiting for him with a cold beer.

Excerpted from the book Pass the Nuts, copyright © Dan Coughlin. All rights reserved.

This excerpt may not be used in any form for commercial purposes without the written permission of Gray & Company, Publishers.

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One Response to Dick Schafrath: Can’t Turn Down a Challenge

  1. Arthur D. Roush says:

    My brother and myself along with a couple of buddies, if I recall correctly, ran with Dick from Brunswick to Medina down Rt. 42. at night. My Dad came home from working the afternoon shift at Ford in Brookpark and said some nut is running up Stoney Hill with cops following him. We knew who it was and ran to the center of Brunswick and waited till he came through. We ran in loafers or whatever shoes we had on at the time so we ended up with some bad blisters. Our sister came and picked us up in Medina. We thought it was the neatest thing. If you see Dick tell him one of the guys that ran with him also ran The Boston Marathon as it was me. I qualified at the Columbus Marathon in 1989 and ran Boston 1990. Tell him thanks for the inspiration. Art Roush

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