BY Art Thiel 05:52PM 05/04/2013

Thiel: Frosty, a man no one could forget

There was a final “Attaway” in Tacoma Saturday for Pacific Lutheran’s Frosty Westering, a man of faith, humility and humanity who knew a little football.

Frosty Westering had a gravitational pull about him that endeared him to thousands beyond the PLU football program. / Pacific Lutheran University

TACOMA — Absolutes in life happen nearly with the frequency of unicorns. But one was identified Saturday, and about a thousand heads nodded simultaneously in recognition. “No one,” Scott Westering said, “‘kinda’ remembers the first time they met Frosty Westering.

“If you met the man, you remembered.”

Over the decades, so many were so taken by that first meeting that they flew and drove from around the country this weekend to be part of what amounted to the final meeting, a memorial celebration of the Pacific Lutheran University football coach, who died April 11 at 85.

To identify him as a football coach is like calling Mozart a piano player. Westering was composer of people, taking the disparate elements of human nature and delivering, through his uncomplicated faith and manner, a score for living life, and only secondarily produced a number on a scoreboard.

Scott Westering, who succeeded his father along the PLU sideline in 2004 and who saluted him with other family and friends at Tacoma’s Life Center auditorium, reached the podium and took perhaps two minutes before bringing himself to address greatness gone. The silence spoke more poignantly than any words for the ache in the wake of the loss of a preposterously compelling figure who regularly transformed lives he touched.

Scott, who spent his first college year at UCLA before coming home to Parkland and becoming a Little All-America tight end, remembered the astonished reactions of countless strangers when his father led the team with his hallmark “Attaway” cheers for restaurant cooks, flight attendants, schoolteachers, late-night janitors and others whose service were routinely ignored.

“All of them were suddenly a part of something they couldn’t explain,” Scott said, “but they knew they wanted to be a part of it.”

Imagine love, decency and respect as the coins of a realm whose higher-profile version savors coins of Caesar’s preference. And imagine winning with those coins and without athletic scholarships — small-college national championships in 1980, 1987, 1993 and 1999, and runner-up finishes in 1983, 1985, 1991 and 1994. The final title in ’99, in Division III, was unique in NCAA annals at any level — winning five road playoff games in a row.

In 32 seasons at PLU, his teams won 261, lost 70 and tied five, an astounding .784 win percentage. No PLU team under his guidance had a losing season. Westering’s teams were famous for helping up fallen foes. But those foes knew how their bruised bones ended up in the mud.

One of Westering’s first players at PLU in the mid-1970s, Steve Ridgway, became a Little All-America linebacker. He recalled a game where he drew a flag for a personal foul, after which he heard the unmistakable baritone from the sideline: “Steve!”

He ran toward the sideline, but started backing up as Westering ran toward him. In full cringe preparing for a serious chastisement, Ridgway heard: “Remember one thing — I love you, so go out there and be the man you are!”

That, football fans, is a coach that players do not want to disappoint — for the right reasons.

A one-time Marine drill instructor, Westering had a disarming, shambling humanity that immediately withered the stereotype of football coach as intimidating martinet. From mismatched socks to the goofy knit hat he wore on cold fall Saturdays, from bellyflops in the hotel pool to cornball sayings, Westering displayed a vulnerability almost unheard of in his profession.

Brad Westering, Scott’s brother and one-time PLU quarterback, admitted that he “mocked and complained” about his father’s perpetual stream of aphorisms and bromides.

“His corniness . . .” he said, shaking his head, smiling. Then he choked up: “I wish I could hear it now.”

Near the end, his body withered by ailment and age, Westering remained an open book, unabashed to let in family and close friends on the dwindling of a robust life.

“It was tough for me, for all of us,” said daughter Stacy Spani, “to see this shell of a man. He said, ‘I don’t know how to do this — will you pray for me?’

“One of the nurses who cared for him — they all were so wonderful — told me dad asked her, ‘Why is it so hard to die?’”

Spani said his final days, with family gathered — five children, 13 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren — were “the most magnificent” display of his vulnerability and love.

“He didn’t push us away,” she said. “He kept us close.”

Throughout the memorial, it was not possible to stay sad long, because Westering’s irrepressible personality shot through the giant room. It was easy for many to imagine Westering continuing his coaching ways in heaven complete with “Attaways” to various saints and angels.

Said Scott Westering: “Can’t you see him saying, ‘Have a great eternal day’?”

Westering’s Christian ministry through football provided so much inspiration for all faiths, as well as the secular, because he was so secure in faith, family and himself that his humility created a gravitational pull to his message of service above self that was nearly irresistible.

“Forty-one years ago, we came here knowing no one,” said Donna, his childhood sweetheart and wife-for-life who took the podium and spoke with clarity and conviction. “Thank you.”

Then the house rose to a thunderous ovation as if the Lutes won another national title.

No. It was better than that. It was big-time, as Westering made life, wherever he was.


YourThoughts

  • Jen

    Thank you for this piece, Art. I feel for his family. I was lucky to meet Frosty once when I attended a high school leadership conference at PLU. He was the keynote speaker, and his book “Make the Big Time Where You Are” had just come out. He autographed all of our copies (I still have mine), and had something heartfelt to say to each of us. Truly a great and humble man. Even though I ended up at UPS, I secretly rooted for PLU football (except during UPS-PLU games, which we always lost anyway).

    • art thiel

      The “Frosty Effect” was widespread, and exceptional.

  • Trygvesture

    Heartfelt and eloquent, Art. Terrific.

  • Tian Biao

    Well, I never met him, but having read that memorial, I sure wish I had. People like that don’t come along very often.

    • art thiel

      The word unique is abused in sports a lot, and everywhere generally. It was meant, the kindest way, for Frosty Westering.

  • Don

    Another UPS alum here… but no rival. How can one not appreciate the love that Frosty was and so ably channeled? Never knew him, never met him, but I’ve always respected him. After my fourth reading of this piece, I have a sense of what it was like to be at his memorial. I wish I had played for him and seen the man in action. Now that he’s gone, it behooves us, right where we are, to be the same love that he was. Thank you, Art….

    • art thiel

      My hope was to make a connection for readers who didn’t have the privilege of knowing him. Thanks, Don, for taking the time to read it (4 times!), think, and write.