Back where it began

WEATHERSFIELD – There was probably a shortage of clipboards in the Mineral Ridge school district during the early 1970s, and former Rams coach Jim Pappada has a pretty good idea why.

Pappada became an assistant football coach at Mineral Ridge in 1973, joining head coach Edward Zale “E.Z” Whittaker and his staff. Pappada was 22 at the time and in his first coaching stint, and it was then that he realized why clipboards were disappearing at a rapid rate.

“(E.Z.’s) last year of coaching, he probably broke 10 clipboards,” Pappada said with a laugh. “He’d throw it up in the air and punch it in half.”

Whittaker had a passion for coaching, especially because he was a leader on the first football team in Mineral Ridge High School history in 1961. He also was part of two undefeated teams in 1963 and 1964, both of which will be honored during a ceremony at next Friday’s game against Sebring.

Whittaker, a 6-foot-4, 270-pound offensive and defensive tackle, was an All-Ohio selection for the Rams and went on to play four years at the University of Pittsburgh. He might have reached the NFL if not for a knee injury his senior year.

When his time with the Panthers was over, he returned to Trumbull County and was head coach of the Rams for three years. During the 1973 season, his younger brother, Jeff Whittaker (the current head coach at Mineral Ridge), was a senior on the team.

As exciting as it was to play for his older brother, Jeff said the situation also brought challenges.

“It was fun to play for him, but it was hard because it’s your brother,” Jeff said. “It makes it hard if he has to discipline somebody. Kids are always hollering at the coach.”

Now they’re hollering at Jeff. The former Liberty High School coach is in his first season leading the Rams. His coaching tour took him all over the state of Ohio since his first job at – you guessed it – Mineral Ridge in 1979.

But calling his homecoming full circle wouldn’t do it justice. Nostalgic and maybe even a little sentimental would be more appropriate.

The Rams’ field is known as E.Z. Whittaker Field and has been since 1987, the year after E.Z. tragically passed away of a heart attack at age 39.

“I worked with E.Z. until December 28, 1986,” said Pappada, recalling the day E.Z. died. “Every time I think about it, I get the chills.

“We had a great time Saturday night. We were all having a good time at the local pub, playing pool and everything else. The next morning I had heard that he died.”

Just like that, a friend, a brother, a son, a coach, a husband and a father of two was gone – but he hasn’t been forgotten.

Above the bleachers is a big sign that reads “E.Z. Whittaker Field” and next to the stands is a large memorial in his honor, with flowers freshly planted next to it on a regular basis – as has been the case since it was first created.

Jeff continues the namesake tonight as he and the Rams take the field at 7 p.m. against Salem. It will be the first time a Whittaker is coaching on E.Z. Whittaker Field.

Jeff is trying to take the situation in stride, but he can’t help but wonder how his emotions will be tonight, and not just because of his brother. Other coaches who were on the same staff also passed away at young ages, such as Charles Clark and John Davis. Clark was E.Z.’s best friend growing up, and Jeff said he was close with both Clark and Davis.

“There are a number of guys that he kind of represents in that stadium,” Jeff said. “He represents their passion for Mineral Ridge.”

With that on his mind, Jeff hopes to rekindle the magic of the teams his brother once played on in the early ’60s. The current players will wear different decals on their helmets. A black strip down the middle will emulate the helmets worn back then, and the players will have the number “63” on one side and “64” on the other in honor of the unbeaten teams.

It’s a game and a time Jeff can’t wait to experience, but he said the coach in him hasn’t yet allowed him to get too emotional.

“I’m sure once I get into that environment and get that feeling, it’s going to be interesting,” he said. “I guess I don’t know what to expect.”

Pappada has a pretty good idea. Jeff’s longtime friend had two successful stints as Mineral Ridge head coach during a 41-year coaching tenure, and he worked with both E.Z. and Jeff. More importantly, he’s been a close family friend – and comedian – since he first met the Whittakers in 1973.

“It may have been a big circle, but it came back here,” said Pappada of him and Whittaker reuniting at Mineral Ridge. “Forty-one years later and we’re back, and I’m happy to be here. My bones ache a little more than they did when I was 22. I actually used to do somersaults every time we scored a touchdown, but if I did one now, Lane’s (funeral home) would have to pick me up.”

Those kind of jokes are funny even in the worst times. He remembers trying to console Jeff after E.Z.’s passing by bringing up the good times they all had.

“To this day we do the same thing,” Pappada said. “I’d say how it’s a good thing E.Z. isn’t here because he would’ve broke another clipboard.

“(E.Z.’s) last year of coaching, the two captains, they wanted to get even with their coach. They said, ‘Coach, here’s our going-away present to you. This is from our football team, and I hope you don’t break this.’ It was a metal clipboard, made out of heavy-gauged titanium steel. And he loved it. It’s probably still in the house.”

Not too surprisingly, the two brothers have similar coaching styles.

“Jeff threw his clipboard the other day, and I said, ‘Jeez oh man, I think E.Z.’s watching you.’ “

He certainly will be tonight.