By DAVID JONES
MANTLE’S BLUE RAVENS: Larry Mantle, brother of New York Yankees great Mickey Mantle, coaches his eight-man offense in preparation for the Riverfield Country Day School’s first football season, which opens Sept. 7 against Southwest Christian in Neosho, Mo.
DAVID JONES for GTR Newspapers
The coach has retired, he admits, “more times than Michael Jordan.” Still, he felt he needed a challenge, so he looked at the Oklahoma Football Coaches Association Web site and found an institution called Riverfield Country Day School was looking for a coach for its brand spanking new eight-man football team, and he applied. He was accepted.
On Aug. 7, Coach Larry Mantle started practicing with his team and rented a house in Bixby.
Mantle, age 66, has been coaching football since 1970 and has a record of 190-114. He started with an eight-man team in the tiny town of Cashion. He stayed there for eight years then began moving around coaching eight- and 11-man teams. He even coached a six-man team for five years.
Eight-man football is just like 11-man football except you take away the tackles and one running back. Six-man football,” he smiles, “is another thing entirely.”
On a hot August morning a running back asks about a playbook. “We don’t have a playbook,” says Mantle. “We have numbers for all the plays and the numbers tell you where you’ll go. When we have our first scrimmage I’ll have you run about 15 plays and we’ll have those plays drawn out so you’ll know what’s expected.”
Riverfield, with the nickname Blue Ravens, is a small private school in west Tulsa near the Page Belcher Golf Course. The middle school and upper school are both relatively new and will have 60-65 students each by the time school opens. That’s where they hope the extra players will come from.
Mantle is high on his quarterback, Jake LeBar. He is also impressed with receiver Hunter Wilkins. Mantle also knows things will get more intense as the season progresses. “They need to learn their assignments and how to carry them out. They’re playing in T-shirts, shorts and helmets now, but soon we’ll be in full uniforms in the heat. That’s when it’s going to get rougher.”
Mantle knows about building a program. When he took a job with an Oklahoma City high school in the early 1990s he picked up a program that had a 38-game losing streak going into the season. They lost the first four games and then won 21-7 when a defensive player intercepted a pass in the last minutes of the game and ran it for the cinching touchdown.
“You’d have thought we’d won the state championship,” says Mantle.
Mantle was taught about winning by an expert. Born in Commerce as the youngest of five children, his older brother, baseball Hall-of-Fame member Mickey, played for the New York Yankees. “He’s the reason the Yankees won all those pennants,” says Mantle of his brother. “He was a great team leader.”
Mantle recalls spending summers at his brother’s New Jersey home and going to many of the Yankees home games. Being Mickey’s brother, he had access to the team clubhouse.
“I don’t care if the Yankees had a 25-game lead over the second place team, if they lost you went into the clubhouse and saw their head’s hanging down. One pitcher recalled feeling Mantle’s glare after he’d blown a game. His next game he won and when he got to the clubhouse all the guys were on their knees bowing to him. My brother set that up.”
Much has been written about Mickey, but Larry just remembers him as being a great brother. “We didn’t have much when I was young, but when Mickey joined the Yankees our style of living improved immensely. I didn’t know where it was coming from.
“I know that when he did come home, he didn’t like sitting around the house much. We’d go fishing or to an OU game or whatever he wanted. To me he was a great brother.”
Mantle hopes he can find some players with his brother’s burning desire to win. In the meantime, he’s still sifting through the pieces, finding out what he has, seeing how they fit into place.
Toby Clark, head of the middle and upper schools, has handled the scheduling chores. He has tried to line Riverfield up with other beginning eight-man programs. Therefore, Riverfield will play teams like Southwest Christian in Neosho, Mo., Life Christian in Oklahoma City and Evangelistic Temple in the team’s one home game. In all, the upper school team will play six games and the middle school team four.
Mantle looks upon the upcoming with all its unknowns with a smile.
“I love to do this.”