I think this little find should rank high in the annals of Art and Sports. It’s a poem written by Rolfe Humphries (AC 1915) in tribute to Amherst College football coach James Ostendarp in 1966. Humphries had at that time recently retired from Amherst as a professor of English; Ostendarp had just finished his seventh football season at Amherst and would go on to become the winningest coach in the college’s history.
AN OPEN LETTER TO COACH OSTENDARP
The course you teach, the one I taught
Do have some things in common, as they ought.
Writing and football both, I think, require
Some discipline, and plenty of desire.
And neither of us greatly cares to see
“I must express my personality!”
As an excuse for some sub-dismal stunt
A sloppy sentence, or a fumbled punt.
I know the trite conventional approach
Is for professors to assign the coach
A place among the lower primates where
He’ll be Department Head, for all they care.
This attitude, I fear, I’d have to call
A trifle anti-intellectual
Since most of us have learned a thing or two
About our business from observing you.
We’ve learned the language of another trade
Watching the films reeled off, the games replayed,
Heard talk of monsters, waggles, roll-outs, traps,
And something just as technical perhaps,
That delicate precision-timing, when
The boys begin maturing into men,
And this, we know, you value even more
than winning games or holding down the score.
One last remark: in art, in sport, we see
In application, this philosophy –
Any creative work is better done
In an environment of love and fun
Where a long run, or a good story, seems
Not just one man’s achievement, but the team’s.
It’s all a game – sure, sure, but what the hell?
Why not, while we’re at it, do it well?
And so, from Amherst near and Amherst far,
We thank you, Jim, for what you do and are.
Amherst and New York City
Humphries was a notable 20th century American poet, and a lifelong friend of the poet and editor Louise Bogan. His work has been described as combining “linguistic vigor and intellectual clarity.” However, it is as a translator, especially of the Greek and Latin classics, that he was supremely gifted and for which he will be known for generations to come. W.H. Auden called Humphries’ translation of Virgil’s Aeneid “a service for which no public reward could be too great.” But the Humphries Papers here reveal a man of great warmth, humor and exuberance. He taught and coached at Woodmere Academy on Long Island for thirty-two years, then returned to Amherst to join the faculty for eight years before retiring.
Ostendarp (1923-2006) was extraordinary not only for his winning football teams, but for his attitude about the place of athletics in college life. One of his former players recalled that “The Darp” made a point of introducing them to classical music and art, sometimes taking them to the Mead Art Museum during afternoon practice time. After his retirement in 1992, a reporter asked Coach Ostendarp whether he was interested in coaching at a bigger school. “Where would you go after Amherst?” he asked.
In brief, what I like most about Humphries’ poem is its generosity. A distinguished poet-teacher salutes an equally distinguished coach-teacher, and suggests that their enterprises are really not so unlike one another — at least as these two men practiced it, at Amherst.