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Bob Cortese: Changing Lives One Kid at a Time

Mick Cornett
Wednesday July 19, 2000

In 1970, Chris Kelly was a 17-year old kid with a big dream. His dream was to play major college football, just like his older brother. As it turns out, Chris Kelly’s high school coach was 27 year-old Bob Cortese who decided to do everything in his power to help the young man live out his dream. He knew the younger Kelly was a good student and suggested the Air Force Academy. That sounded like a good idea to Chris who, more than anything, just wanted to play Division I football.

Of course getting into the Academy was no easy chore. Were his test scores high enough? And as it turns out, more importantly, was he a good enough football player to impress the college coaches? They found out that Kelly’s math score was a little low but if he was a good enough athlete to earn a football scholarship, he could be admitted. Bob Cortese went to work. He called the head coach at the Air Force Academy and pitched Chris Kelly as a sure-fire prospect. The college coach responded with the standard line, “send me some film.”

Bob Cortese discusses a play with quarterback Jeff Loots.
Image courtesy of Andrew Mason
That wasn’t the answer Bob Cortese wanted to hear. St. Joseph High School was a parochial school with a small enrollment and a small budget. And Cortese saw that Kelly was a victim of the school’s inadequacies. Just as St. Joseph hadn’t offered the proper math classes to prepare Kelly for the Air Force Academy, they also didn’t have the film budget to take pictures of all the games. Bob Cortese sat in the dark, spinning through reel after reel of 16-milimeter film, looking for evidence that Chris Kelly deserved a football scholarship. But the evidence wasn’t there. Kelly was a border-line prospect anyway, and it turns out that his best games had not been filmed. Cortese came to a potentially dream-busting conclusion: based on the film that he had available to send to the college coaches, Chris Kelly was not going to get a football scholarship. Undeterred, Bob Cortese had one more idea

In 1958, Bob Cortese had been a 15-year old kid with a big dream. He wanted to attend one of Rochester, New York’s premier high schools: St. Thomas Aquinas. What were his chances? Next to nothing. His family didn’t really have the money, and he didn’t really have the grades. All he had going for him was sports. Bob Cortese was an athlete and the priests at the Catholic High School knew it. The school was a football powerhouse, playing a national schedule, literally traveling thousands of miles a year to play against other parochial schools.

Education wasn’t a priority in the Cortese family. In fact, if Bob Cortese could just graduate from high school, any high school, he would become one of the most educated members of his family. The grandson of Italian immigrants and the son of a bartender, Bob Cortese figured he’d go to high school for a while, and then go work for his father at the local tavern. It was the life he knew.

His parents were divorced, and both worked long hours to stay ahead. Sports? Sports were games. They had no interest in sports. Getting young Bob Cortese into St. Thomas Aquinas wasn’t their dream, it was his. So he signed up to take an entrance exam and struggled through it. He knew his score was low and after leaving the testing area he dropped to his knees to pray: Please, let me into this school so I can play football.

The priests didn’t know if Bob Cortese could handle the academics but his determination impressed them. He was admitted, and the priests got what they expected. Cortese struggled in the classroom but stayed eligible and excelled in football, baseball and boxing. In fact, boxing may have been his best sport; he was a two-time city champion. Boxing was big in 1950’s New York. Bob’s father, who rarely, if ever, saw his son star on the football field, did come to the city boxing championships.

To say the least, Bob Cortese was committed to St. Thomas Aquinas and its athletic programs. If he wasn’t playing a particular sport, he was on the sidelines rooting for his classmates. Despite the fact that he had to travel across town to attend classes, Bob never missed a single day of high school because that would mean missing a single day of sports. Sports were his life. Sports saved him.

When he wasn’t at school, Bob Cortese was living a real-life role from West Side Story. He was a member of a gang and grew up tough. Many of his friends wound up on drugs, in jail, in the mafia or some combination of all three. Why didn’t he? Sports. He had a diversion. He had a dream.

On graduation day, four different priests put their arm around Bob Cortese and spoke a variation of the same theme, “Congratulations,” they said. “I never thought I’d get you through.” It was a miracle. Pick your academic poison: discipline problems, financial problems, grade problems? Bob Cortese had them all.

Cortese didn’t have much interest in college but he did want to play college football. So he went to a junior college in Sterling, Colorado where he was named a first team All-American. He then received a scholarship to the University of Colorado where he became a starter on the line. He never intended to graduate from CU but after staying eligible for two years he found that he was close to a degree. So he went ahead and did what was necessary to graduate. It changed his life. The degree allowed him to become a high school football coach where he immediately excelled. Soon he received the first of his seven ‘coach of the year’ awards. It’s also where he crossed paths with 17 year-old Chris Kelly.

By 1970, Bob Cortese knew all about dreams. And he was going to do anything and everything he could to get Chris Kelly into the Air Force Academy. Anything and everything. And as he stared at Chris Kelly’s game film, and figured these flickering images were not going to be enough to get Kelly into the Academy, he feared a dream was about to be shattered. But maybe not. Maybe, there was a way. Bob Cortese put Chris Kelly’s game film on the shelf and pulled out a different reel, from a different season, that contained footage of Kelly’s older brother who just happened to wear the same uniform number. This is the film he sent to the head coach at the Air Force Academy, who liked what he saw, and unknowingly offered Chris Kelly a scholarship. The dream was alive. But the story wasn’t over…

Bob Cortese’s coaching career moved along quickly. He had taken that first head coaching job at St. Joseph High School in Colorado when he was just 25 years old. He inherited a team that had been struggling, but over the next three years, they lost only four games. He was then hired to coach another troubled program at Highland High School. He took them to a league title. Next, was a rebuilding project in Arvada, Colorado. He led them to a state championship. And yes, he performed yet another miracle turnaround at Lakewood High School, taking them to the state finals. In eleven years as a high school coach, he won 88 games and had improved the fortunes of four different schools.

In the late 70’s he spent two years as an assistant coach at the University of Colorado. He was a steady force in a program full of turmoil. It was big-time Division I football but there was no security. By 1980 he had left CU to become the head coach at lowly Mesa State in Colorado. In his first year, they struggled to a 3-6 record. It was, by far, the worst season he would ever have. Two years later, they were 11-0 when they lost the National Championship Game against Central State (now UCO) in Edmond, Oklahoma.

Cortese proved to be an outstanding small-college head coach. Grabbing the best talent he could find frequently meant taking kids who’d gotten in trouble at Division I schools. He cared less about their past, than about their future. He spent the 80’s at Mesa State before moving on to the NCAA Division II level at Fort Hayes State in 1990. More success followed, and when he was ready to leave coaching after the 1997 season, Bob Cortese had spent 29 years improving the fortunes of seven different schools and winning 72 percent of his games.

He was 54 years old and had little to prove at the high school or NCAA Division II level. An old friend in Denver wanted him to come try his hand at sportstalk-radio. It sounded interesting, and that’s where he was headed when he ran into NFL veteran Stan Brock at a coaches clinic.

Brock had played for Bob Cortese at the University of Colorado before embarking on a long and successful career with the New Orleans Saints. The two had stayed in touch. Brock had just been offered the head-coaching job of the struggling Portland Forest Dragons in the Arena Football League, and he needed help. He persuaded Cortese to become his assistant head coach and offensive co-ordinator.

Cortese took the job and instantly took a liking to the indoor game. If he was looking for a challenge, he found it. Defense be damned. This was wide-open, throw-it-long--throw-it-short--but-throw-it--football. Before long, he earned a reputation as an innovator, bringing new concepts to the league, and challenging the more seasoned AFL coaches to figure out a way to stop him.

“I knew he was good at coaching coaches,” Brock, now the head coach of the AFL franchise in Los Angeles, remembers. “Hiring Bob Cortese was the best move I ever made. At least five times a week, we’d get together, and he would give me a coaching class.”

In 1997, the year before Cortese and Brock arrived in Portland, the Forest Dragon offense scored 47 touchdowns and won only two games. With Cortese and Brock in 1998 they scored 83 touchdowns and won four games. By 1999 they were a .500 team. Brock’s hunch that Cortese could teach him to coach, and help turn the franchise around, had paid off. Last fall, both were rewarded. Brock was hired away by the expansion Los Angeles Avengers and Cortese became the head coach of the Portland franchise, which was planning a move to Oklahoma.

Cortese has been around long enough to know that life isn’t about winning football games. When you coach 29 years, you have an opportunity to touch thousands of lives and without-a-doubt that’s what Cortese cherishes most. In recent years, he started receiving letters from former players: letters that will bring tears to your eyes. All of the letters were different but followed the same general theme: Bob Cortese had done something to change their life for the better. Some, like All-Pro receiver Tony Martin, said they never would have made it to the NFL if they hadn’t met Bob Cortese. Most thanked him for things that didn’t take place on an athletic field. Usually, it was something he had said at a time when they needed to hear it.

Cortese is touched, and says over the years he developed a reputation as a coach that would give a player “one more chance.” It was often that ‘last chance’ that proved to be the difference in the person’s life. But while Cortese is charitable, these extra chances weren’t charity. He quickly points out that he gave some of those additional opportunities to kids who were great athletes and who could potentially help him win football games.

There’s one letter from a former student that strikes a deep emotional cord with Cortese. Ironically, he barely even remembers the kid. Back when he was a high school coach, one of the principals made him help with the junior high wrestling team. Cortese wasn’t too fired up about it—he was a football coach not a wrestling coach—but he did as he was told and worked with some of the bigger guys on the squad. There was a 12-year old Hispanic kid who was one of the toughest, but smallest kids in the wrestling room. “He needed to shave when he was 12 years old—basically a thug—not a good student at all,” Cortese bluntly remembers. But, for some reason, Cortese believed in him. One day, he pulled him aside and got in his face.

“You can win the state championship.”

“No, I can’t.”

“Yes, you can. You can do anything you want to.”

The next time Cortese heard from the kid was 20 years later. The coach received an invitation to attend a graduation ceremony for Julian Antonio Ramirez, who was receiving a Masters Degree in Sociology from the University of Kansas. Along with the graduation announcement was a short note.

You told me to never give up. Well, I haven’t. Thank you for believing in me. You’re one of the greatest men in my life.

There’s also a letter from Brigadier General Christopher A. Kelly who was contacted for this story and responded immediately with a call from the Pentagon. “I am where I am today because of Bob Cortese,” says the 1974 graduate of the United States Air Force Academy.

Mick Cornett was a writer for ArenaFan Online from 2000 to 2001.
The opinions expressed in the article above are only those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the thoughts, opinions, or official stance of ArenaFan Online or its staff, or the Arena Football League, or any AFL or af2 teams.
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