Napoleon Hill once said, "If you cannot do great things, do small things in a great way."
It would be easy to say that Hill’s message didn’t apply to the Tallmadge seventh-grade football team this past fall.
After all, the Blue Devils, led by coaches J.J. Hurst and Andrew Bennett, did many great things during their highly successful 2019 season.
For starters, Tallmadge finished undefeated. The Blue Devils also won the Suburban League American Conference title and then defeated the larger-school National Conference champion, Stow, in their season finale. Often, Tallmadge overwhelmed its opponents during its two-month rampage.
Of course, such illustrious accomplishments pale in comparison to what these young men did during a late summer day back in September.
Oddly enough, it had nothing to do with their performance on the gridiron.
Moments after Tallmadge steamrolled Canton South, the players made a very important decision regarding their biggest fan. Thus, they took a certain 20th-century self-help author’s advice and put it into action.
Fully geared with their helmets, pads and cleats, these weary but enthusiastic youths made their way up the stands of the recently built Blue Devils Stadium.
Seated in front of the press box was Chip Wood, a man who attended all of the team’s practices and games until he was no longer able to do so.
From there, the players, led by Xavier Isley, presented the game ball to this frail but remarkably resilient gentleman.
At that point, the 13-year-old Isley did something anyone would do after paying homage to a person he or she loves so dearly.
He burst into tears.
Volunteer coach is everyone’s friend
If you played football, basketball or baseball as a youth in Tallmadge, it’s a good bet you knew "Coach."
Charles "Chip" Wood, who passed away Sept. 22 at age 72 after a long battle with prostate cancer, won’t be listed in the same category as coaching legends like Pop Warner or Bear Bryant.
However, if you needed some advice on how to attack a nickel defense or maybe you needed a water bottle, a ride home or perhaps a buddy to join you at the local pub, Mr. Wood was your man.
"He was always around," said Mr. Wood’s son, Greg, a 1989 Tallmadge graduate. "The friends I have now, he was their friend. He was their friend and not Greg’s dad."
As children reach puberty, they may have a strong motivation to become more independent and rebellious. Therefore, a view of dad lurking in every corner might be a tad bit overwhelming, especially if you’re a teenager trying to find your way.
Greg, on the other hand, wasn’t a typical teenager. And Mr. Wood was no ordinary dad.
"He coached every single team I was on: football, baseball and basketball," Greg said. "I don’t know how he did it. He was at every single game and practice. Everybody was like, ‘Your dad is the best.’ We’d go kayaking. It was like hanging out with your friend except your friend is your dad."
Despite all the time he spent on the gridiron, diamond or court, Mr. Wood was never a head coach. Not officially, at least.
In fact, his vast amount of tutelage to a plethora of aspiring athletes was usually the cheapest option.
That’s because it was offered without a fee.
"He was not an official coach," said Sarah Isley, who is Mr. Wood’s daughter and Xavier’s mother. "He was a volunteer coach. He was a really cool coach. He kept them on their tails. He was really involved with the guys."
Calling Mr. Wood a man’s man would be a spot-on assessment, but that didn’t mean he avoided the opposite sex. Even if he tried, it’s a safe bet a number of females didn’t let him.
"He was a looker," Greg said. "The ladies definitely noticed him. One lady at the funeral said to me, ‘We actually came to watch your dad more than we came to watch you.’"
They certainly had their opportunities to enjoy the "view."
During his early years, Greg played for his father on a Catholic Youth Organization basketball squad called the "Orange" team.
That was the original name of the team, at least. Mr. Wood, on the other hand, was more partial to a certain carbonated soft drink. Not only was it a more suitable nickname, it was a necessary means to quench one’s thirst, as well.
"He called us the Orange Crush," Greg said. "He brought Orange Crush to every game. One thing he always did was play everybody. Everybody played and everybody scored."
Greg certainly appreciated everything his father did for him. At times, though, he was a bit confused when he left his house to spend time with his friends.
That’s because they may have asked him this question more than twice: "Where’s your dad?"
"Everybody really respected him," Greg said. "Sometimes I would ask my friends, ‘Do you like me or do you like my dad?’"
No. 1 fan’s health worsens
According to cancer.org, the odds for a man to be diagnosed with prostate cancer during his lifetime is one in nine.
However, one in 39 is likely to die from the disease.
Mr. Wood was diagnosed with cancer in 2017. Although he received treatment throughout his two-year battle with the deadly disease, the cancer eventually metastasized to his bones.
The deterioration of this once sturdy former defensive end who starred at Akron Buchtel took its toll on everyone.
"Once we knew he was sick, Xavier had some bad games and bad practices," Sarah said. "When the cancer spread, my dad couldn’t make it to the practices any more."
Such news was a crushing blow to Mr. Wood, who had spent much of his adult life rooting for his son and grandson to excel on the gridiron.
"He tried to get there as much as he could," said Jeremiah Isley, who is Sarah’s husband. "It was harder for him to get there, especially in the summer months."
Before his health took a turn for the worse, Mr. Wood didn’t miss a game or practice. He didn’t visit the field empty-handed either.
"He brought water bottles as much as he could," Sarah said. "If it was a super hot day, he would take a cooler full of water bottles."
Due to his health issues, Mr. Wood could no longer show the players how to get into a 3-point stance. He had to do something, though. Sick or not sick, being a helpless bystander wasn’t exactly Mr. Wood’s style.
"They barely had water at practices," Jeremiah said. "Chip noticed that. He felt it was his way of helping the team."
Until he couldn’t do it anymore.
As the cancer grew worse, Mr. Wood could no longer see his beloved grandson play in person.
For awhile, at least.
On Sept. 11, the team was scheduled to play Canton South at the high school’s new state-of-the-art facility, Blue Devils Stadium.
Regardless of the gloomy circumstances, nothing was going to stop Mr. Wood from being there. He knew his time was running out. For him, it was now or never.
"The doctor gave him two weeks to live," Sarah said. "Even though he was really sick, my dad was determined to go to the game. We just had to figure out a way to get him there."
Master plan works beautifully
It was no secret that Mr. Wood’s life was in grave danger.
His family knew it, the players knew it and the coaches knew it. Most of all, Xavier knew it.
Therefore, his coaches came up with an idea. Their goal? To honor the team’s most loyal supporter and also raise the spirits of a beleaguered team member.
"Each player signed his name on the game ball that we would give to Chip after the game," Hurst said. "We wanted to put a smile on Xavier’s face."
Xavier had a reason to smile before the game too. That’s because he was named a team captain.
"That was a big deal," Sarah said. "That meant a lot to everybody."
A plan like this certainly wasn’t out of the ordinary for the two coaches. Hurst and Bennett had been tutoring the seventh-grade players on life lessons since they were in fifth grade.
Bennett also had the ability to provide some spiritual wisdom. He had previously served as a pastor for 16 years, including 12 years at the Tallmadge Church of Christ.
"From a coaching standpoint, we preach family and needing the person next to you," Bennett said. "Football teaches us about life. If one of us is hurting, all of us are hurting."
Now the only question was this: Could they somehow get their guest of honor to the stadium?
Fortunately, the answer was yes.
"He couldn’t walk at that point," Jeremiah said. "His legs had swelled up. We put him in a wheelchair and wheeled him up the stands."
Mr. Wood and the rest of his family wound up sitting in the back row to watch Xavier and his teammates. To say they put on a show would be a gigantic understatement. Perhaps inspired by the distressing state of affairs, the Blue Devils cruised to a resounding 42-0 win.
As it turned out, that wasn’t the best part. Like a scene from a movie, these young gladiators dutifully made their way up the stands.
Once they reached the top, they presented a special gift to an elderly gentleman, who for a brief moment, didn’t look like a man suffering from a fatal disease.
"It was a total surprise," Hurst said. "There was a pretty big smile on his face. I was told he just kept looking at the ball when he got back to the house. He looked at it for hours."
Mr. Wood’s appreciation toward this kind gesture didn’t end there. Although his legs were no longer useful, the quiet but passionate football-loving patriarch wanted to use whatever was left of his bodily functions to show his gratitude toward his favorite team.
"He held onto it for a couple of days," Sarah said. "It meant a lot to him. He wanted to call the coaches and thank them personally. He wrote them thank you cards."
The timing of this touching event couldn’t have been better. The team was not scheduled to play the following week due to some unforeseen circumstances.
Consequently, when the players returned to the field for their next game, Mr. Wood was dead.
"He was so proud of the ball," Bennett said. "He showed it to a lot of people. It was pretty cool. We had a bye the next week because one of our teams cancelled on us. I was glad it happened when it did."
Coach’s spirit remains dear
Xavier isn’t the only family member to brighten up his grandfather’s spirits during these extremely difficult times.
His younger brother Cooper is an 11-year-old swimmer. The siblings also have a 2-year-old sister named Violet.
"Cooper started swimming last year," Jeremiah said. "Chip was able to go to his swim meets and practices. As for Violet, he was so smitten by her."
Although their biggest fan was no longer with them, the Tallmadge players and coaches kept his spirit alive by honoring a certain number.
That would be 72, which happened to be Mr. Wood’s jersey number when he played at Buchtel. Thus, when the Blue Devils took the field for the first time after his death, they wore No. 72 stickers on the back of their helmets.
"My husband talked to J.J. about it," Sarah said. "They wore those stickers the rest of the season. It was really cool."
The Isley and Wood families know there is nothing any of them can do to bring their beloved "Coach" back.
Fortunately, a certain group of young football players did some "small things" in an extremely "great way" to brighten the spirits of some grieving family members.
Thanks to these mature-beyond-their-years’ athletes, this ultimate act of kindness to comfort their distressed teammate will last forever.
Perhaps the late American poet Maya Angelou may have explained this unforgettable experience best.
"I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."
Greg Wood certainly won’t.
"I give a heartfelt thank you to the team," he said. "It meant so much for what my dad did all those years he served as a coach in youth football, baseball and basketball. He was my dad, my coach, my hero."
Reporter Frank Aceto can be reached at 330-541-9444, firstname.lastname@example.org or @FrankAceto_RPC.