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Outside the Lines:
A Coach's Story


Here's the transcript from Show 91 of weekly Outside The Lines - A Coach's Story

SUN., DEC. 23, 2001
Host: Bob Ley, ESPN.
Reported by: Mark Schwarz, ESPN

Announcer - December 23, 2001.

Bob Ley, host - The holiday season is usually a time of joy, but for five brothers from a tiny Texas town, Christmas is a time of painful memories.

Larry Viklarek, brother - Probably the worst Christmas you'll ever want to go through in your life.

Ronnie Vinklarek, Buffalo Bills - There were times that I thought, I won't make this. You know, I -- I give up.

Ley - Led by the eldest, who is now an NFL coach, the brothers persevered.

Unidentified female - I know those boys had a guardian angel. I'm almost positive.

Ley - Today on Outside The Lines, in this holiday season, the story of one family's struggle to survive and stay together against insurmountable odds.

Ley - There is an NFL assistant coach who, this morning, two days before Christmas, hears the familiar cliches about family in this holiday season, and those words mean something very different to him and to his four brothers. For all of them, this can be a very bittersweet time of the year.

Our story this morning is one of unbearable loss and despair, but ultimately one of hope and the strength of the human spirit. And it begins on the sidelines of the Buffalo Bills. It's a story told by our Mark Schwartz.

R. Vinklarek - Here we go. Fun in the sun, baby. Great day to get better. Let's go now. Great day to be better. Great day to be a Bill. Here we go.

Mark Schwartz, ESPN - Ronnie Vinklarek preaches responsibility, harmony and teamwork. And his life has been a stirring testament to each. And though it's his rookie season as an NFL offensive line coach, this is a vocation for which Vinklarek is uniquely prepared.

Gregg Williams, coach, Buffalo Bills - I knew that there would be nothing that he would encounter that would be tougher than what he's already overcome throughout his short lifetime so far.

R. Vinklarek - There were times that I thought, I won't make this. You know, I -- I give up. You know, I mean, those thoughts really hit your mind all the time.

Schwartz - His job is to get five men to perform efficiently as a unit, just as he did as a kid when the stakes were even higher as the oldest of five brothers.

His journey to the NFL began in the remote cattle country of central Texas. A carefree young cowboy at first; later, a teenager rocked by tragedy.

Ronnie and his brothers lost chunks of their childhood beginning on an awful day in May of 1967, when their dad, a truck driver, was killed in a head on collision a short distance from the family's home in Flatonia.

Darrel Vinklarek, brother - It was tough, too, you have to figure, because it was a closed casket because of injuries he sustained. And, you know, we really never got to see him, you know, or say good bye.

Victor Vinklarek, brother - And I can remember about three weeks after he died, I asked where dad was. And I got in trouble, because mom started crying. But I didn't know, I just knew he wasn't there and hadn't been there for awhile.

And, you know, Ronnie grabbed me and says, you know, you can't -- you can't -- he's dead. And, you know, that's when it -- I realized what it really was.

Schwartz - At the tender age of eight, Ronnie became the man of the house.

R. Vinklarek - For a while there, you know, you become, you're in a void. You know, you're looking for values, you're looking for somebody. You know, your mother is going to be there.

D. Vinklarek - I knew it was rough on her. I remember her crying a lot for, like, it seems like years. Wondering why it happened.

L. Vinklarek - And when you sit around watching your mom cry, that's a tough deal, because you don't know what to do and how to help her.

V. Vinklarek - I mean, it was tough on my mom. Five kids and no help, that's tough no matter how you slice it.

Schwartz - But kids are resilient, and Ronnie's mother, Angela, was industrious. She taught her boys that God would provide. But one day, four years after their father's death, Ronnie and his brothers came home from school to a mother they barely recognized.

Angela had been stricken by a brain aneurism.

R. Vinklarek - You're afraid, because you know you've lost one parent. Then, you know, you see her incapacitated. She's unable to speak to you. You see her in a fashion where you know she's not, you know, up to -- you know, she's not healthy. She's not the mom that you had before.

V. Vinklarek - And that's when they told us she had had an aneurism. God, we didn't probably see her for six to eight months. She went -- literally went back to the mentality of a two-year-old. She had to re-learn to talk. She had to learn to write. To do everything.

R. Vinklarek - So, you know, you start to get scared. You know, how long will she make it? How long is she going to be OK? What can she do?

Schwartz - When Angela finally returned home, she came to depend upon her boys, from 12-year-old Ronnie to 7-year-old Felix, as much as they did her.

L. Vinklarek - Yeah, I think, when she was trying to learn to talk and she can't say your name, boy...

F. Vinklarek - Yeah, I remember that. I remember that distinctly.

L. Vinklarek - Boy, just looking at you and just trying to say your name, and she can't say it.

F. Vinklarek - You're literally teaching her how to speak. You know, I've got my little school books learning how to read and everything, and you're literally teaching your mom the same thing. And she can't help you, because she can't say it.

Schwartz - While his mother fought to regain her ability to perform basic tasks, the boys grandparents helped out whenever they could. Ronnie and his brothers baled hay, scrounged for odd jobs and tried to conceal their poverty.

During high school, Ronnie suffered permanent damage to his leg in a car accident. Doctors considered amputation.

Meanwhile, it seemed that every time the boys took refuge in someone, that someone was gone.

F. Vinklarek - You never knew what to do. I came home from school and I was the one that found grandma sitting on the sofa, you know. And, I'm like, you know, another dead relative. Let's call somebody, I guess.

Schwartz - Neighbors knew the Vinklareks had their share of heartache, but no one outside the family knew just how much. For the boys, the worst was yet to come. In 1976, five years into her arduous rehabilitation, their mother suffered a fatal stroke on, of all days, Christmas Eve.

F. Vinklarek - December 24th at 9 p.m. at night to watch my mother fall in front of a Christmas tree is something I'll always remember.

D. Vinklarek - Probably the worst Christmas you'll ever want to go through in your life.

Schwartz - Victor was alone at the hospital when the doctor pronounced his mother dead. 17-year-old Ronnie drove him home to break the news to the other three boys.

V. Vinklarek - Ronnie and I are sitting there realizing, we've got to go back and tell them she died. And when we walked in the door and I said that, you know, that was the low point. That was the worst. From there, it couldn't have gotten any worse for me.

L. Vinklarek -You know, we lost dad, and now we're losing our mom, and you know, why is it happening? And right there at Christmas. I mean, it's tough. I remember laying in bed one Sunday night and just start thinking about everything that was going on, and I mean, just literally cried myself to sleep one night. And, you know, just kind of thinking that, boy, the future is tough and what we're going to do and where we're going to go.

Schwartz - So many nights the boys would cry themselves to sleep. So many mornings they'd awaken with empty stomachs. And with their mom gone, her sister, Annie Jo, did her best to keep the boys together.

Annie Jo Krischke, aunt - I wanted to be there for them, because I can remember telling someone after, at the funeral home that night, I said, we'll never split them up. We're going to keep them all together. If I have to take all five, I will.

Schwartz - There was a whole community looking to see how you would react to this, wasn't there?

R. Vinklarek - Undoubtedly. You know, at the time that my mother passes away, we're sitting in a situation where they said, well, five boys can't stay together by themselves. That's not going to happen. There's no mom. There's no dad. There's no grandpa. There's no grandma. There's not a lot of people around, here.

Ley - But that possibility was very real for Ronnie Vinklarek and his four brothers. The key to the family staying together was in Ronnie's ability to play football, which he did, despite that serious leg injury, which even today is apparent on the NFL sideline.

When we continue, how the heart of a high school football player worked to try and keep his brothers together under the same roof.

R. Vinklarek - That was the night you laid awake and you thought, I don't know. I don't know what's next. You know, I don't know how we're going to make the next payment on this. Or I don't know how we're going -- you know, what the next year holds, the month holds. You know, and, you know, but you know that if you walk around with gloom on your face, then they're going to see that too.

Ley - Ronnie Vinklarek, the future NFL coach, had lost his father, and his mother on Christmas Eve, and his grandparents. He was the oldest of five brothers, but he was only 17 years of age, and he knew there was a very good chance the boys, who had already persevered through so much, might be broken up and sent to foster homes.

Mark Schwartz resumes this holiday story.

Schwartz - The man who held the boys fate in his hands was District Judge Dan Beck. At that time, Beck served as County Attorney. He knew the family and had a soft spot for the boys, but Beck also knew the law.

Dan Beck, district court judge - Everything that we're taught, and everything that we know about how to do these things, said you need to find a home for these kids.

Schwartz - But Beck knew something about the Vinklareks that you won't find in Texas law. As the public address announcer at Flatonia High School football games, he watched Ronnie persevere despite his severely damaged right leg.

Beck was impressed, and compassionate. He decided to give the boys an opportunity to make it on their own.

Beck - I told them, I let the boys know, let Ronnie know, in particular. I said, if any of you boys get out of line one time, that's it. We're going to pick you up and send you away.

D. Vinklarek - Yeah, we owe a lot to Judge Beck.

V. Vinklarek - And you don't realize that until you get older, the chance that he actually took. Because he could have really came up with mud on his face, easily.

Common sense told him, they can make it if we get this, you know, if we get these people to watch them and help. But he had nothing based on law to support that. Nothing. So, when he -- he didn't just go out on a limb. He jumped out of the tree.

Schwartz - It was Beck's decision to keep the family intact, but put the pressure on 17-year-old Ronnie to keep it functioning.

R. Vinklarek - You know, that was the night you laid awake and you thought, I don't know. You know, I don't know what's next. You know, I don't know how we're going to make the next payment on this. But you know that if you walk around with gloom on your face, then they're going to see that too.

Schwartz - The brothers handed down clothes, jobs and survival skills. Larry taught Felix how to sleep warm by sleeping on his stomach rather than his back.

F. Vinklarek - After school, as opposed to going home and sitting in that big house by myself, I enjoyed working. I did anything I could not to go home and sit in that cold house, because you've got to understand the concept of, if you got to pay that electricity bill and the first time those numbers don't match up and you're 16 years old, well, something's got to give. So, the heat gives.

Schwartz - Ronnie and his brothers stood in line for government cheese and at school for free lunches. Supper, though, was always the toughest challenge. To this day, Ronnie Vinklarek hates to hear anyone ask, "What's for dinner?"

R. Vinklarek - I don't like that question at all. It just weighs on me. Because there was so many times you didn't know. You know, you sit up there and you say, oh, gosh, I don't know guys. Put on some potatoes, we got potatoes.

Schwartz - Putting dinner on the table every night would have been nearly impossible were it not for folks like Martha Freytag, a mother of six who rallied the community behind the struggling boys.

D. Vinklarek - It was truly amazing to me how she just took this upon herself to do it.

F. Vinklarek - I mean, she's an angel walking the ground, as many of the women are there. Just, didn't have to do it at all. Did our laundry. Did our -- came in and -- why, I don't know.

Martha Freytag - I don't know. I guess I just felt for them because, you know, I had a mother that, I had a mother for a long time. These kids didn't.

Schwartz - Other than the kindness of neighbors, all they had was each other and their faith.

V. Vinklarek - I got closer to God. I mean, that's when I realized, OK, what do I have to hang on to. What can I grab on to now, because I'm falling. And I knew, you know, you can't continue to fall. I don't ever say things can't get any worse, because as soon as you do, they will.

Schwartz - What made you ever think that life would get better?

R. Vinklarek - You know, my grandfather once told me, you know, I'll never forget that -- I'm moping around. He said, you hurting? No, sir. You hungry? No, sir. Well, then, get happy. You don't have any problems. You know, this was a 76-year-old man just trying to say, don't walk around here like there's something wrong. There's nothing wrong. You know, you're not hurting, you're not hungry, get happy.

Schwartz - Did you feel sorry for yourself?

R. Vinklarek - Oh, I think you throw yourself a pity party from time to time. You know, that's easy to do.

Schwartz - Ronnie put pity aside and remembering the importance his mother placed on education, scraped together grants and the few pennies he had to begin college. That set a powerful example. All five boys went on to earn degrees.

Krischke - He was always a leader, you know. He could get things done. You know, Ronnie is kind of pretty strong, kind of strong-willed. And he would, like I said, going through college, and I think all the rest of them followed him. You know, they thought, well, we have to do it, because he did it.

V. Vinklarek - That's what he did. And that, how do you put a price tag on that?

Schwartz - Without ever playing a snap of college or pro football, Ronnie Vinklarek rose to the top of his profession, even though his mother never encouraged his pursuit of the game.

R. Vinklarek - I love the game, but was a poor athlete. But she said, what do you think, ball is going to feed you? You know, she couldn't really speak. And now, you think, hey, yeah, ball is feeding me mom.

Schwartz - It's also feeding his wife of five years. Having spent most of his youth taking care of his brothers, Vinklarek was nearly 40 before he was ready to start a family of his own.

R. Vinklarek - I never thought I'd get married, because part of it was, I didn't know if I wanted that responsibility anymore. I lived my whole life with somebody looking at me going, you know, what are we going to wear? What are we going to eat? What's next?

Marianne Vinklarek, wife - I didn't know anything about any of this until we were just about engaged.

Schwartz - Ronnie proposed to Mary Ann here, on the Texas farmland that he once tilled. And it was at his parent's graveside that he revealed things to her that he had always locked deep inside.

M. Vinklarek - And when we got there, we went to the cemetery, and he -- he gave me a little bit more insight into all that. You know, and kind of, I don't want to say broke down, but kind of let me see a part of him that I had never seen before. He really just opened up and this is how I felt, and I'm so disappointed that my mom can't see. I mean, it was very, yeah, I can't even describe it.

Schwartz - Ronnie has endured his share of blindside hits, which may be why he finds the hits he takes these days so delightful.

Williams - I'm sure that each time, each moment he spends with those boys right now, he thinks about the times that he missed with his own father.

R. Vinklarek - My four-year-old walked by a quarter on the floor, and I'm like, he doesn't pick up a quarter? What does he not understand? I'm not understanding what he doesn't understand here. And it just shocked me, you know, because, boy, if you saw any kind of money -- you know, and it wasn't that you wanted money, it's just that you knew that went into the jar.

I still will go into a restaurant to this day and order the most expensive thing on the menu, because I can. You know, I just think that's something, and my wife knows that I want a lot of food in the house. Even if we can't eat it all. There's just something, you know, we all have scars that we wear from growing up, and that's just one with me.

Schwartz - Another scar, one that runs excruciatingly deep, is from the wound of Christmas past.

R. Vinklarek - We remember it as a time that my mother passed away. You know, most people would go back to their parents, you know. And for my brothers and I, for many years, that's just not been there. Especially when you were in high school. Because now you were all in that same house. Here it is, Christmas. What's fixing to happen? Nothing real big, here. There's not any more money than there was last week. There's not anything big and drastic going to come into the house here. It's not somebody's going to go buy a lot of gifts for somebody.

V. Vinklarek - You almost just wanted it to be another day in the week, because it just, it was too much. And the more somebody tried to make it good for you, the worse it really was.

F. Vinklarek - It hits me, when I see the Christmas tree the first time, you know, each year. But it will always be a date I'll remember. To watch that sort of thing happen, in my mind, I'll never forget it. Like it happened yesterday.

M. Vinklarek - For Ronnie, it's kind of a hard time for him, and I can see why. I mean, it's hard for me. I don't have my father. But my father didn't leave me on Christmas Eve, either.

R. Vinklarek - The things that you didn't think you'd ever really have, you know, are there. The warmth of each other, you know, the work -- I'm able to walk in, as opposed to when I was younger, walk into an empty house and then ask what are we going to eat, as opposed to now walking into, you know, a loving wife and two children and saying, boy, is this a tremendous thing. What -- is there anything better.

Schwartz - Five orphaned brothers from a tattered house by the railroad tracks in a tiny Texas town. All of them moved on to become professionals. The oldest, Ronnie, leads his linemen with wisdom born of surviving adversity. Nobody controls your heart, mind or soul, a lesson he's learned with the most important line up in his life, his brothers, with whom he shares this holiday season.

R. Vinklarek - They're worth everything in the world to me. They're -- that's the only thing that I have in life that's part of my mom and dad, and that's those four there.

V. Vinklarek - We had every reason to fail, and every opportunity. We could have been drug addicts. We could have been drop-outs. We could be working -- or we could be on the side of the road collecting money. We had every reason to fail, and people would have accepted, because they would have said, well, they didn't have parents. They didn't have a dad, didn't have a mom. How could they be successful?

D. Vinklarek - Hopefully we can show people that, OK, this is how bad it can get, and this is where you can go to. You can become a successful teacher, in successful jobs, and all the way up to an NFL coach.

Ley - Ronnie Vinklarek is in Atlanta today as the Bills visit the Falcons near the end of a disappointing season. The truly important part of this time of the year, a family reunion with his four brothers, will have to wait until next week, around New Year's.

When we continue, a spirited reaction to last week's program focusing on the good names gone bad of George O'Leary and Dan Issel. We'll check the e-mail in-box in a moment.

Ley - Dan Issel issued a specific apology this week to the Mexican-American community in greater Denver. But the fallout from his angry outburst was one of our topics last week as it became apparent Issel would not be fired by the Nuggets. Our guests included the club's former coach, Doug Moe, and "Rocky Mountain News" columnist Bill Johnson.

Bill Johnson, "Rocky Mountain News" - If it had been me and he called me a nigger, would that be OK?

Doug Moe, former Nuggets coach - Well, he didn't, though. You see, your stretching things to say -- you're saying that if he said that, then he'd call me an African or whatever. But he didn't.

Johnson - People have called me racist for saying I think he should be fired. That, to me, just does not make sense.

Ley - Among the e-mails to our in-box, from New Gretna, New Jersey - "Mr. Johnson must realize that Coach Issel is human just like the rest of us, capable of doing stupid things. I have one question for Mr. Johnson - what would you be saying if Coach Issel was black?"

From Auburn Hills, Michigan - "I am a restaurant and hospitality manager at the Palace of Auburn Hills. If I had spoken that way to a fan, I would have been terminated on the spot. Dan Issel's actions were inexcusable."

From Nashville - "Everyone has to be so politically correct they cannot even defend themselves. What gives this fan a right, Mexican, black, white, whatever race, to drunkenly yell and criticize Dan Issel's job and not expect a response? Would this fan have said the same remarks in the street outside to Issel's face? Probably not."

And this e-mail - "Athletes who are convicted of spousal abuse get a second chance. Athletes who try to choke their coach get a second chance. Athletes who try to physically assault fans get a second chance, but a coach who says the wrong word in a verbal argument doesn't deserve a second chance?"

Dan Issel was scheduled to return from his four-game team suspension last night, but he took a paid leave of absence. The general manager of the Nuggets, Kiki Vandaway, said that Issel needed more time to, quote, "consider his future."

Mike Evans coached the team again last night as the Nuggets lost to the Golden State Warriors in Denver.

We also examined George O'Leary's hasty resignation from Notre Dame over a falsely claimed master's degree, and among the e-mails that we did receive - "I must object to your multiple statements about Coach O'Leary's padding his resume and boosting his credentials. The fact is, he lied. Contrary to your representation of society, most people do not lie on their resumes."

George O'Leary this evening for the first time will publicly discuss his resignation and the false items in his resume, interviewed by Mike Tirico in our Sunday evening conversation after the Jets and Colts. That is "SportsCenter" this evening, about 11:30 Eastern time.

And if you missed the Outside The Lines that spurred those thoughts on Issel and O'Leary, check it out online at The keyword is OTLWEEKLY to check our library of streaming video. Your e-mails always welcome at our address, And thanks for being in touch.

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ESPN's Bob Ley goes inside "A Coach's Story."

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