By Harold Raker
The Daily Item
As an all-Big 10 defensive back for the late Joe Paterno at Penn State, Yaacov Yisrael took a sophomore teammate under his wing.
That sophomore, Alan Zemaitis, also became all-Big 10 for three seasons.
Chatting on the sideline at Susquehanna University’s Nicholas A. Lopardo Stadium this week, Zemaitis recalled how Yisrael helped mold him into the football player he became, and the coach he is today.
The two became close friends in Happy Valley, but went their separate ways. Until last year.
Yisrael, then a second-year head coach at Halifax High, learned that Zemaitis was in the same area, as a first-year defensive backs coach for Steve Briggs at Susquehanna.
Both took side trips before settling in to their current jobs. Yisrael, now the first-year head coach at Shamokin High, and Zemaitis, in his second year at SU, both gave pro football a try.
After graduating in 2003, Yisrael had a shot with the Washington Redskins and also played Arena I and Arena II. Zemaitis, drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, played for the Hamilton Tiger Cats of the Canadian Football League.
Zemaitis knew even back in his days in State College that he wanted to coach. Yisrael never gave it a thought.
Zemaitis, whose first gig was a East Lake High School in Florida, said, “I knew that I wanted to give back to the young athlete, more so, just youth in general, and coaching was a more natural fit for me. I love the game of football and what the game of football brings to the table as far as a teaching vehicle.”
Yisrael, on the other hand, said, “I felt like I wanted to play pro ball, and I got a shot at it and it didn’t work out, and then I kept wanting to play. I played arena ball for three years. In my mind, I wanted to play and I didn’t really have coaching on my mind.”
But Yisrael married a coach, the former Jill Martz, the Line Mountain field hockey coach and a former standout player for the Eagles and Nittany Lions.
He was approached to help with a youth program and eventually was asked to join head coach Sam Stroh’s staff at Shikellamy.
“Once I got there, I just kind of fell in love with it. I really enjoyed it and I was shocked that I didn’t know that before. Ever since I got to Shik, it’s just been a part of me, it’s in your blood and it doesn’t go away,” Yisrael said.
Even before he got hooked, he had a connection to coaching, not only with his wife, but with his brother-in-law, Line Mountain wrestling coach Mike Martz.
He spent two years as an assistant at Halifax, then two as head coach before seeing an opportunity with a vacancy at Shamokin.
“I just felt like Shamokin has the bigger opportunity. The people love football and it’s important and I like the fact that the kids are hard-nosed. It’s a great atmosphere,” Yisrael said.
“I wanted to be at a program that I feel like I can help the most, a program that needed to be rebuilt,” he said.
The Indians are 0-7 with three weeks left, but Zemaitis’ Crusaders have also yet to win, starting 0-5.
Both believe in what they are doing and, stemming from their tutelage by Paterno, want to be sure to do things the right way.
Said Yisrael, “I think (from Paterno) the discipline thing was something (we learned) and also doing things the right way, with integrity and with class. I think those are probably the biggest things. We are going to be disciplined and we are going to do things the right way. I think the best teams do things right. If we want to be the best, that’s where we’ve gotta get to and that’s who we are.”
Zemaitis said he thought he could have a great impact in today’s society through the avenue he has chosen. “I’ve always had (coaching) in the back of my mind and Susquehanna gave me a great opportunity,” he said. “I’m just trying to hold up my end of the bargain here.”
Stories of coaches landing in Paterno’s doghouse are legendary. Asked if they had paid any visits, Zemaitis chuckled.
“Oh man, we were always the good guys,” he said.
But once, they thought it might be their turn in the barrel.
He, Yisrael and a couple of other players were called upstairs by Paterno.
“We were like ’man, we must have done something wrong.’”
He said that a couple of the other players called up with them were guys who might be expected to get into trouble and his thought was “OK, I’m definitely in trouble.”
They arrived in Paterno’s office and JoePa said, “We gotta do something about this hair.”
Paterno did not allow long hair or facial hair and “we all had braids.”
“But that is the only time we ever got called up there. We were the good guys.”
They were good — better than good — as players and now they are trying to lead the way for today’s youth to be able to do what they did.
Zemaitis said he tries to coach the way he was coached in college, with tough discipline and honesty.
“Kids will understand when you’re speaking from the heart and that’s what I try to do,” he said. “If you talk the talk and then walk the walk, they will buy in.
“I try to teach them to be mentally tough. The mental game is a big part of succeeding at the high school level or any level,” Zemaitis said.
In addition to the coaches, Zemaitis learned a lot of that from Yisrael.
In conditioning groups, Zemaitis said, Yisrael always beat him, no matter how hard he tried.
“I always competed against him secretly,” he said with a smile.
But he also learned that you never want to let a teammate down or the fans down.“
“We were on TV all the time,” he said. “I was always scared to death of getting burned on national television.”
He said Yisrael helped with that, by giving him sign language to help him make the right plays.
But he said Yisrael was also a spiritual leader for him and remains so to this day.
The feeling is mutual.
Yisrael said, “It is definitely a blessing for him to be here. He really helped us out with Shamokin (taking part in a summer event for the youth called the Football Frenzy), getting the guys excited.
“He’s just like a brother, he’s there when you need him, and we’ve always had an open line of communication, and I can lean on him when I need to.”
He said it is even more meaningful now that both are relatively new fathers.
Once their seasons are over, they plan to get together like the old days, this time with their families.
And, as they did during an interview this week in Selinsgrove, they can reminisce more about their glory days.
Zemaitis remembered Yisrael getting a pick six against Iowa and Yisrael said Zemaitis nearly had one against Purdue.
Noting that he ran about 90 yards but didn’t score, Zemaitis said with a laugh, “For the record, I had a partially torn hamstring on the play, and I had to break five tackles.”
Zemaitis recalled Yisrael as a great defender who took advantage of his intelligence. “Cov was always the smartest guy in the secondary. All I had to do was look back and he’d give the sign language, keep me on the right page. It was tremendous.”
And Yisrael laughed as he remembered how Zemaitis would terrify receivers.
“AZ was a very physical cornerback. He was intimidating. As a sophomore he was sticking guys and lifting guys off the ground.”
Now he and his friend are trying to do the same with young football players.