Not a lot of outsiders know about the handful of amateur football leagues that play in New York City — Brooklyn alone has its New York Kings, its Pharaohs, its Seminoles.
But in the southeast corner of that borough, the semipro Brooklyn Mariners are an institution, and for 59 years, the team’s profane, sidelines-stomping coach has been a local legend.
Since starting as the Marine Park-based team’s coach in 1957, and until his death from a heart attack in September at age 82, Walsh labored to make his Mariners relevant in a city obsessed with pro sports.
And he did, leading his team on to four national championships and an amazing 60-season total of 622 wins.
Walsh won more games than any college or pro football coach in America, according to an NFL Films feature on him from the late 1990s — all the while shouting, in his scratchy, high-pitched rasp, favorites from his personal playbook.
“Move ya fat ass!” And, “You’re all a bunch of morons!” And, “Let’s give ’em some Mariners’ hell!”
“Do you wanna get killed?” Walsh asked me, just before the 2000 season, as we sat at a table in his unofficial office, the Mariners Inn bar in Marine Park.
I’d just told him I wanted to spend an entire season on the team, chronicling him and the squad, despite my lack of tackle-football experience.
We brokered a deal: I’d suit up for a season if I served as the team’s press representative. I’d have no official on-field position, short of “fly on the wall.”
But our little deal gave me a close-up look at “Pudgie” and his Mariners, a tough bunch. UFC cage fighters have nothing on ’em. And some are outright heroic. For one, Mariner linebacker Danny Suhr was the first firefighter to perish on 9/11. Walsh eulogized him. He never forgot the fallen.
My time as a Mariner started with preseason practice, much of which seemed to focus on the team’s fiercest rivalry, against the Marlboro Shamrocks of Massachusetts.
“We’re playing the Marlboro Shamrocks!” Walsh bellowed at our backup kicker, who’s booting field goals during a late-summer practice at Kings Bay Field.
“It’s November 23rd!” Walsh imagined aloud, still shouting at the kicker. “And there’s seven seconds left. Some Irish c—sucker is trying to take your head off!”
Walsh could utter an expletive in such a way that Scorsese would be envious.
Long before the opener, Walsh gave me a nickname: Plimpton, after “Paper Lion” author George Plimpton, who wrote about his experiences suiting up for the Detroit Lions.
I’d be hustling around cones at practice, and I’d hear that distinctive rasp, “C’mon Plimpton! Let’s see what ya got!”
A Navy vet, retired fire lieutenant and granddad of three, the man known universally as Pudgie grew up in southeast Brooklyn, the son of an NYPD detective.
There he stayed. Even during his brief stint as a teen in the Navy he got little farther than Bay Ridge. He served as an altar boy at his neighborhood church, St. Thomas Aquinas in Marine Park, where his funeral was held two months ago with full FDNY pipes-and-drums honors.
Walsh dedicated his life to his family — his wife and best friend, Catherine, who died in 2015, his daughter, Erin, and son, John, and to his two other families, the FDNY and the Mariners.
‘I’m really not sure how he did it and did it so well for 60 seasons’
“Every waking moment he was thinking about the Mariners — how they could become a better football team, how he could raise some more money to support the upcoming season, pay for the jerseys, the referees and the field,” says his son, John Walsh, 48, who played for his dad 18 seasons and is now the Mariners’ interim coach.
“I’m really not sure how he did it and did it so well for 60 seasons.”
“I’m proud of my guys, and I love them,” Pudgie said in his last interview, given from his wheelchair on the sidelines just days before his death on Sept. 21. He was still coaching.
“Since 1957. It’s been a long ride,” he added. “And I’m hoping it keeps going.”
In the 59 years that he coached the Mariners, Walsh paid his players exactly what he paid himself: nothing, reasoning, if we don’t pay the water boy, we don’t pay the quarterback.
The team was funded on a shoestring, by raffle and T-shirt sales. Still, hundreds of players competed, sons following fathers onto the field.
It’s hard-driven, seat-of-the-pants, basic 11-on-11 football — combat and camaraderie.
“Play to the utmost,” Walsh explained in the NFL Films feature, which included a 1999 interview. “And go back and have a coupla beers with the boys. That’s what it’s all about.”
As for his sometimes-blue sideline diatribes, “I tell them: Listen, you’re dealing with a very volatile individual here,” he joked in the interview, from his seat at the Mariners Inn.
“Anything I say to you personally during the game, I don’t mean it.” He gave a hearty laugh.
“I don’t mean it about your mother, your brother, your sister . . .”
In our opener, somewhere in Pennsylvania, the Mariners were uncharacteristically down at the half, 19-0. Walsh was beet-red livid, in full stomping mode. “If I see another helmet on the ground, I’ll kick someone in the balls!”
Fortunately, I had a cup on just in case Walsh decided to put one through Plimpton’s uprights.
The Mariners rallied in the second half, but it wasn’t enough. The bus ride back was somber, Walsh reminiscing about another fallen Mariner as I drifted off. When I awoke, we were stopped at a rural gas station. “I’ll negotiate,” Walsh said ominously, getting off the bus. I feared mechanical issues.
Walsh returned with an enormous box of beer. “I’m a 66-year-old teenager,” he explained.
After the opening loss, the Mariners returned to their winning ways. But there was a setback at a game in Hoboken. Some of the “Studs” — the star players Walsh personally recruited — did not show for the game, and he was visibly hurt.
Walsh defined “Studs” as “guys that show up and blow teams off the line of scrimmage because that’s what they do!”
When you didn’t show for the Mariners, it was personal. Walsh worked all year to make the Mariners happen, from recruiting to getting uniforms and fields to, well, everything.
At halftime, Walsh addressed us.
“I’m sick and tired of this Triple-A bulls–t!” he blared, before mocking his absentees’ excuses. “They got an Aunt Nellie in England who’s having an operation, and they’re waiting for a phone call!”
After the hiccup in Hoboken, the Mariners rolled and kept rolling, racking up victories with relative ease.
Walsh rallied the team in the end zone after a decisive victory in Passaic. “I’m 66 years old!” he declared. “I might drop dead in December, but before they put me under, I want to put a ring on my finger!”
During the season, Walsh often referenced his mortality. He prodded us to take care of business, no regrets.
To get to that ring, though, we had to go through that formidable Shamrocks squad, a challenge Walsh did not meet meekly.
Former Mariner and retired police officer Mike Goodwin describes how, a few years earlier, before the big game, Walsh walked into a Shamrock bar and declared, “We’re the Brooklyn Mariners, and we’re here to kick your ass!”
It’s a Sunday night playoff game in Marlboro, Massachusetts.
At the half, the game was tied. Inside the steel storage trailer that served as our locker room, Walsh slowly paced in the narrow space between the players, pausing to stare at each of us. Suddenly, he unleashed a classic for the ages. “They’re s–ttin’ all over themselves!” he blared. “In the second half, we’re gonna rub it all over their faces!”
Bedlam in the storage trailer.
“It’s like you wanted to grab an ax and a hose and go save people,” recalls John of his father’s legendary pep talks.
It goes down to the wire, as it should for these bitter rivals. Ultimately, we can’t convert an onside kick, which we don’t practice because we barely have time to practice to begin with, and we lose. Season over.
I didn’t keep in touch with Walsh. However, I kept tabs on him from afar. It was safer that way — no cup required. I took comfort in knowing that he was still working those sidelines.
‘He always liked to say that the team’s motto was: A little bit more than a football team’
His passing hit me hard.
Sure, he won hundreds of games, but he also made New York a more intimate place, bringing all kinds of people together through the force of his magnetic personality.
“He really made Brooklyn a better place,” says Bill Ahearn, a former Mariner and firefighter and one of Walsh’s closest friends.
“In all the years I knew him, almost 50 years, he was consistent in that no matter what the conversation was about, he would bring it around to the love of his family, the love of the Brooklyn Mariners and the love of the New York City Fire Department. You could be talking about the Mets blowing a game in the 15th inning, and somehow, he would work in how much he loved his wife.”
Sadly, Catherine Walsh passed away less than two years ago. Pudgie and Catherine were married for 48-plus years, and they had a special, special thing.
Catherine Walsh didn’t love football and she wasn’t a fixture at Mariner games, to say the least. But when Walsh came up short, it was Catherine who lent the team money. Catherine was Mrs. Mariner.
“He always liked to say that the team’s motto was: ‘A little bit more than a football team,’ ” says John.
Of course. It was about Marine Park and Sheepshead Bay and Brooklyn — when Brooklyn was Brooklyn. It was about Catherine and Pudgie and John and Erin. It was about keeping a dream alive despite stiff odds. It was about never forgetting the fallen.
Now the distinctive rasp that reverberated through Marine Park for decades has been silenced. The greatest Mariner of ‘em all has fallen, but he will never be forgotten.