NEEDHAM — The other coaches know it. Even the referees know it. Bundled up in a jacket at least three sizes too big, in a pair of 7-year-old adidas Sambas that have been chewed up by a 5-year-old springer spaniel named Corky, Don Brock doesn’t need to be on a soccer field in freezing temperatures.
The 76-year-old, blond-haired man has nothing left to prove. He’s been coaching for more than 50 years, 46 of them for the Needham High boys’ varsity soccer team.
Call him a pro, but that’s an understatement. The way he operated on the sideline of Tuesday night’s Division 1 South tournament game against Marshfield was like watching a former president run the local parks department.
He made substitutions that only he and his wife, Jane , understand. He pulled one of his best players off the pitch in the middle of a one-goal game, in part to appease a referee with 15 years of officiating experience. He raised his voice just four times during the entire 80 minutes, and just once was it directed at the men in the striped shirts.
With a 660-180-117 career record, Brock is in the top 10 for wins among high school soccer coaches in the United States. He has raised nine children along the way, maintained a relationship with his wife of more than 30 years (“I get so intense that sometimes there’s neglect, I guess, but she’s a great supporter,” he says), and finished off a 45-year teaching career (he retired in 2004).
So why was he still out here on “Election Tuesday” when he could be huddled somewhere warm, watching Diane Sawyer talk about swing states with George Stephanopoulos?
“He doesn’t have to do this, but he loves the game and he loves the kids,” said veteran referee Dennis Lyons , who heard three words from Brock throughout a feisty game that featured three yellow cards and enough shoving to get through a discount store’s check-out line on Black Friday.
“I’ve invested my life into this program,” Brock said.
At halftime on Tuesday, with the score tied, 0-0, and Needham playing far from its best game, players dropped their heads and slithered over to the bench.
“The first half was pretty dramatically disastrous,” said Jane Brock, who attends most of the games and, interviewed separately from her husband, recites the action and momentum swings almost identically. “It seemed like our kids were down more than they were up.”
His hands in his pockets, calm face flush red from the cold, Don Brock slowly walked around and reminded the Rockets how they always play better in the second half.
Dazzling striker Mac Steeves gave Needham a 1-0 lead in the 51st minute.
Shortly after, Nolan Brady , a talented senior who had struggled to get anything going, had enough of a chirpy Marshfield player and found himself on the end of a stern warning from the officials.
Steeves signaled a plea to Brock to let Brady stay in the game. Brock didn’t care. He had already directed Hantzly Murat to take off his jacket and make the substitution.
Voice of experience
Brady returned to the action minutes later, but Brock sensed that JV coach Paul Tallino was confused.
“That was for the referee,” Brock told him.
“Ohhhhhhh,” Tallino said.
Afterward, Brock explained: “It’s just experience. You learn that shouting at refs doesn’t do any good. Too many coaches do it. You have to work with them. They’re not getting paid much.”
Minutes later, Brady played a curling, over-the-top ball to Steeves that resulted in Needham’s second goal. The Rockets won, 3-0.
Brock had saved Brady “by taking him off, because he knew what was going to happen,” said Lyons, the veteran official, who was ready to give Brady a yellow card.
Needham athletic director Micah Hauben is a thorough man who chooses his words carefully. When he arrived at the school four years ago after working as an athletic director in Philadelphia, he began analyzing every coaching position at the high school.
“You can’t just tell in a meeting, you have to see things in action,” he said.
But the process didn’t take long with Brock.
“Someone who has been doing it 51 years, if he didn’t enjoy it, he wouldn’t be trying to track down 11 other coaches [in the Bay State Conference] for stats. And that’s what he does. You just don’t do it if you don’t love it. You could go home and put your feet up.”
Don Brock arrived at Jane’s doorstep one day in the early 1960s with the knowledge that she was struggling in math. Don tutored her — first in math, then in love.
For the past 25 years or so, Don has told Jane each fall that he’s going to retire from coaching in two years. And when it’s time to make cuts from the varsity each August, he starts losing sleep.
“That’s a terrible experience every year,” Jane said. Then it gets better. Don gets back into his routine. He wakes up early at least three times a week to go play tennis. He tears through mystery novels and tutors calculus during the day. Then he goes off to coach, hangs out with his assistants afterward, and returns home to watch old movies.
But once the season ends, except for the two years when Needham won it all in 1968 and ’95, Don stops sleeping.
“He has a period of letdown and sadness where he’s not fully happy again until the next year,” she said.
If Needham wins the state title this year, there has been speculation that this could be it for Brock.
Hauben swears he hasn’t even thought about who would replace Brock when he decides to . . . well . . . Hauben calls it “the R-word.” The athletic director says he will post the opening online.
The clock is ticking past 9:30 p.m. Tuesday and Brock is still sitting on the cold bench.
The assistant coaches have been waiting patiently, but they are eager to find warmth.
“Fine,” Tallino shouts. “We’ll see you there.” His hands full, Tallino grabs two bags stuffed with soccer balls and slings them over his shoulders.
“No, no,” says the 5-foot-2 Brock, waving him off. “Leave the balls. I’ll get them.”Jason Mastrodonato can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.