Al Young was at a raffle for his Black River football program Sunday morning when the urge to find out who the Pirates would play in the Division V, Region 15 playoffs struck him.
So, the 24th-year coach fired up his phone, went to the Internet and let out a hearty laugh when he learned of the first-round pairing announced by the Ohio High School Athletic Association.
The reaction wasn’t because he felt Black River was going to get drilled by fellow 7-3 team Fairless — far from it, in fact — or because it would have to contend with Youngstown State quarterback recruit and Stark County all-time leading passer Hunter Wells.
It was because Young will coach against former high school teammate, longtime friend and fellow larger-than-life personality Don Wilson on Saturday night at Art Stevenson Field.
“We’re excited,” Young said. “The first thing I do Sunday morning is say, ‘Jesus Criminy, we’ve got to play them guys?’ I started laughing and everybody said, ‘What’s so funny?’ and I said, ‘We’ve gotta play Wilson.’
“Hell, everybody around these parts knows who Don is, so it will be good for him, too, because there’s a lot of his friends and family here.”
Time must flash back to 1977 to understand Young and Wilson’s relationship, as Black River went 10-0 and won The Associated Press Class A state poll championship under coach Dennis Steinback.
Those Pirates were wild, rough around the edges and prided themselves on how many opposing players they could knock cold.
Though he is now an incredibly cool, calm, collected and well-spoken coach, Wilson was the ringleader as a physically imposing 6-foot-1, 210-pound fullback/defensive end. Young was the lone sophomore starter as an undersized linebacker who led the team in tackles.
Together they were part of a first-team defense that allowed one touchdown all season — on a trick play, at that, in the opener.
They were self-described corn-fed roughnecks who loved nothing more than to don the black and gold. Their unbridled passion for the game still consumes them to this day.
“(Wilson) was a nasty football player,” Young said. “He was great. He really was. When he was here, he was a dangerous player. He had absolutely no respect for anybody that he played with or against when he put the pads on.
“He was there to be a great player, and he was that tough. I mean, he respected people, but he was going to hit you whether he was your best friend or if you were the top player.”
The gushing words were mutual.
“(Young) was a guy that was tough enough in certain situations to play defensive line and athletic enough to play outside linebacker,” Wilson said. “He was good in both spots, so that was really good for us.”
On top of Wilson’s mean streak on the field, he was constantly at the forefront of playfully teasing Young, who was wildly popular with his teammates because, unlike most sophomores, he could contribute at a high level.
According to Young, because Wilson wasn’t going to give away his secrets, Wilson was known to help throw Young in the now fenced-off pond near the practice field. He also made sure Young wasn’t tackled when he returned kickoffs for the scout team because it was much more comical to punch him where no man wants to be punched.
There may or may not have been an incident involving athletic tape and a goalpost, but no one is confirming it.
“You don’t want to print all that,” Young said while trying to fight through laughter. “Back then they didn’t give a (expletive) about anything, but they were good guys in the end. … That was a tight-knight group, but, man, they were all a bunch of roughnecks.”
“He dealt with us seniors on the team — we were kind of knuckleheads with the underclassmen — and he took things in stride,” Wilson added.
The hazing never got to Young, who still loves a good laugh even at his own expense. In fact, it only drew him closer to Wilson.
They were workout partners in the college offseason — Wilson played at D-I Murray State, while Young starred at D-III Iowa Wesleyan — because then-Pirates coach Thane Hecox gave them a key to the weight room.
They also never went long without contacting each other in the years that followed, especially since both went into coaching almost immediately after their playing days were over.
They’ve coached against each other before, as Young was 3-0 against Wilson when Wilson was at Collins Western Reserve from 1989-94. While Wilson had other head coaching stops at Margaretta (1995-2007) and Loudonville (2008-11) before taking over Fairless this season, Young has remained at Black River his entire life.
The career paths have been different, but the bond of being a Black River Pirate never was.
“There’s some great people at that school,” Wilson said. “It was a great situation to be in there. I was very, very fortunate to be in with a great group of football players like Al Young.”
Like Young, who is Medina County’s all-time winningest coach with a 165-86 record, Wilson has had the good fortune of being highly successful with a 146-105 mark. He led Margaretta to the playoffs five times and has Fairless in the postseason for just the second time in school history (1999) after it compiled just 22 wins over the previous 10 seasons.
The Falcons are led by the 6-4, 185-pound Wells, who has more than 7,000 yards in his illustrious career. The air attack is new to Wilson — he always has been defense-first and prefers to run the ball — but the move was necessitated due to Wells’ talent.
In the offseason, Wilson picked the offensive brains of Wadsworth native and Ohio Wesleyan assistant Ian Formaz and Bethel (Kan.) head coach Manny Matsakis. The results have been electric, as the Falcons average 38.7 points and put up 49 in a triple-overtime victory over Manchester, which crushed Black River in Week 4.
Wilson is smart enough to realize the Pirates have improved greatly since then. He also knows Young well enough to realize his Falcons will have an eye-opening experience after they embark on an hour-long bus ride through the unique landscape that is the Black River Local School District.
Toss in the individual battle between Wells and record-smashing Black River running back Andrew Vaughn — the two will no doubt be contenders for All-Northeast Inland District Offensive Player of the Year — and the storylines are endless.
“You always want to go the easiest route, and I knew this wasn’t going to be the easiest route,” Wilson said. “I thought, ‘Oh, god, here it goes.’ I know what they’ve got. They’re a physical team, and they’ve got good players.
“(Young is) a tough guy to coach against. I’d say right now I’d rather coach against a lot of guys than against than Al. They’re going to be fundamentally sound, and they’re going to do things well. They’re not going to make mistakes. You’ve gotta beat ‘em.”
Contact Albert Grindle at (330) 721-4043 or firstname.lastname@example.org.