Bud Meyer passed away Nov. 10 at age 82. This is an excerpt from Urban’s Way, the authorized biography of the former head coach.
Playing sports was not an option in Bud’s house.
“Everybody had to do sports,” said Bud, a retired chemical engineer. “I don’t know how you didn’t do sports. We’re one of those families, tragically, that has absolutely no artistic ability whatsoever. We can’t even write a decent poem. None of us plays a musical instrument. I’m not proud of it. But everybody has to do something sports-wise just because that’s how you’re supposed to do it. I don’t know things differently.”
Gigi, who actually broke that stereotype by writing a couple of plays, was also captain of her high school swim team. Erica was the first girl on an all-boy baseball team in Ashtabula, took up golf and become an excellent baseball and softball player. Urban excelled in football and baseball.
“They all did that because that’s what you do. Nobody made a conscious judgment about it – just get your butt out and play,” said Bud. “Urban did well.”
That commitment to sports and education got Bud and Gisela’s full support, including going to see his kids play or Urban to coach, no matter how far away. And it carried over into Urban’s adult life, as he was struggling to break into college coaching.
“They were both phenomenal about getting in the car and driving 12 hours to watch me,” Urban said. “I’m coaching at Illinois State – I’ll never forget this – making six-thousand dollars a year. Illinois State played Indiana State. Maybe the two worst teams in college football, both about one and nine. They (Gisela and Bud) get in the car and drive 12 hours and watch the game when I only am the quarterback coach, then get in the car and drive home. What is that? That just tells you the kind of support I had growing up.
“And we’re kind of the same way with our own kids. Shelley’s everywhere. If I’m available, I go. So that’s why I drive to Atlanta to go watch (his daughters play in) a volleyball tournament. That came from them.”
Bud and Gisela also gave their children the gift of parenting.
“They were all around us kids, doing this, doing that,” remembers Urban. “They had no life. And, really, that’s what you’re supposed to do. That’s the way God made it. You are supposed to sink every ounce into your children. I always remember that about my own.”
It was such a precious gift that Urban almost feels guilty.
“I had a great family and a great childhood,” Urban said. “I hear some of these stories about how these kids (on his team) without families were growing up. Why am I so fortunate?”
While Bud built discipline in his young son’s life, the nurturing love of Gisela provided Urban with an unpinning of his dreams.
Bud was the hammer, Gisela the velvet.
There was plenty of sports competition for Bud to oversee and lots of gourmet cooking by Gisela. On “Popcorn Days” when snow fell and there was no school, the Meyer kids were allowed to stay home and hang out with mom and dad. They were entertained by the show out the front window: People walking, or riding in their cars, slipping and sliding down Lake Road, a main thoroughfare with big ditches on each side.
Sometimes those unfortunate people who couldn’t negotiate their way past those ditches would come to the door to use the phone and call for help. Gisela would offer them hot chocolate. Nurturing was her thing, and she was generous to a fault, even able to connect with total strangers.
Perhaps this was part of the reason that Gisela, as a young girl, was able to negotiate her escape out of Nazi Germany, where she was member of an affluent family.
A Prussian soldier she had befriended said he would be on duty that night, but would let her cross over because he would be leaving the next morning. Gisela’s father had died in the war. She and her mother left everything behind as they fled on a river bed into Bavaria.
Gisela (“Geez-a-la”) was a gourmet cook who was trained as a chef in Switzerland and had worked at some well-known eating establishments. She made her way to America as a young woman in her 20s and went to work as a server at a famous French restaurant in Cincinnati. The Maisonnette, until it closed in 2005, had the longest run in America with a five-star rating. Restaurant management asked Gisela to change her name to the more French-sounding “Giselle.” (“Je-Zelle”) There she met Bud, a customer and a wine connoisseur of sorts.
Bud and Gisela married five months later. They had their first child, “Gigi,” in Cincinnati, but Bud was transferred to Toledo for a six-month period, during which Urban Frank Meyer III was born. Bud soon moved his family to Ashtabula, where he was employed in the chemical business and Erica was born. They were a close-knit family that stayed busy with sports and school activities and enjoyed what Ashtabula had to offer.
“Winters we really cold,” said Gigi, “with lots of snow.”
Summer brought sailing, swimming, softball, baseball. Fall brought football. Everybody in the Meyer household participated in some kind of sports except Gisela, who had enough to do as nurturer and chef, either outside or inside the home. She got some help around the house from Gigi, Urban and Erica when she was cooking at the local country club – each was assigned a room to clean.
The Meyers were boat people. First was the smaller boat named “Pupe,” followed by a larger, 24-footer called “The Gisele” – both named after Gisela Meyer. (“Pupe” means “doll” in German.)
“We hung out on the boat, slept on the boat … lived on the boat,” said Gigi. “Urban and Erica and I all sailed on other people’s boats as a part of crews that raced – especially Urban. He and dad did the Bermuda Cup as sailors together. My dad was navigator and Urban was strong, so he could winch when he was told to.”
They were members of Put-In-Bay and most Sundays they were on the lake – Urban usually in a Tartan Ten, a 40-foot keelboat that can sleep six.
Otherwise, they were a typical, upper-middle class family growing up in the Midwest, with three kids who were taught to become achievers. And if you screwed up, Bud made you run laps or do pushups. Urban did his fair share.
Bud and Urban watched a lot of football games on TV and the younger Meyer, an excellent chess player, would question why the coaches made certain moves. “I remember that’s how they connected,” said Gigi. “Urban would say, ‘hey dad, I wonder what would have happened if they had run these four plays instead of those four plays.’”
At an early age, Urban showed an interest in playing and coaching. Ken Sims, a basketball coach and friend of the Meyer family now retired in Ocala, Florida, says he recalls Urban asking questions about coaching at around age eight. “He was very curious,” said Sims. The only advice Sims remembers giving him – and he’s not even sure Urban remembered it – was “don’t start out in high school.”
As a young boy, one day while heading to his seat to watch a college game in Cincinnati, Urban happened to pass by the Wichita State football team. He saw what he believes now was the defensive coordinator scribbling on a chalk board, barking out orders to his players. “He’s just going after the players with intensity and I just stopped and started watching him,” said Meyer. “I’m a little guy with my dad and I’m stopped, holding up people. I wouldn’t leave and I was just mesmerized. To this day I can remember that coach with that chalkboard, coaching those guys up. I looked at my dad and said, ‘I want to be a coach someday.’”
Meyer didn’t know at the time, but on that same Wichita State staff as offensive line coach and, later, linebacker coach, was a rookie assistant named Phillip Fulmer, who would take over as head coach of the Vols in 1992.
Urban’s first love back then was baseball.
In his pre-puberty days, young Meyer lacked the body mass and strength for football. He had come from a long line of baseball players – two great uncles who played in the minors and a dad who was an amateur. It was no surprise, then, when Urban began to do well in the sport. His knack for re-inventing himself and improving in spurts seemed to mystify members of his family. And Urban would carry over that trait of metamorphosis from his days as an athlete to a coach.
Every time sister Gigi turned around, her little brother seemed to grow in size or stature as an athlete.
Like all siblings, the three Meyer kids fought on occasion.
“If you want to know what Urban was like,” said Gigi, “then just look at Nate (his son, who was turning ten in 2008). Except a little bit more mischievous.”
The worst trouble Urban got into was over playing ball in the house and breaking a glass horse brought back from Europe by his grandparents. But because he was playing ball when it happened, he wasn’t severely punished.
“There was anger, but not a lot of anger,” said Gigi, “because playing ball was something that happened a lot in our house. I mean, we ran patterns out in our front yard a lot. Dad would say ‘This on two … you’re blocking,’ and off we’d go.”
Urban did well early enough in high school sports that his parents began thinking maybe he could earn a college scholarship. Bud was famous for his declarations, having forecast a dim future after one of Urban’s bad baseball performances as a sophomore. “He acted like he had never been on a ball field before,” Bud said. “He made wild throws from the infield, struck out, made mistakes. I remember saying, ‘We can just forget about scholarships.’”
Urban was a skinny kid who didn’t reach 100 pounds until he was midway through his freshman year. About that time he took one of his patented quantum leaps. He had a growth spurt accompanied by a sudden advance in athletic skills.
“Urban was a great baseball player,” said Hood, who didn’t play the game but sometimes shagged balls for his friend or attended his teams as a spectator.
“I was good at baseball because you didn’t have to have much strength and size,” said Meyer. “And I could turn a double play and I would practice with my dad all the time. But I was really not a good player. Between my sophomore and junior year, I went from being a guy who didn’t play much, a skinny little guy who was 115 pounds, and I went on a growth spurt.”
One day Urban found that secret weapon that he hoped would be his equalizer. He wanted to buy a set of weights – “and this was before guys were lifting weights” – and while watching a TV program about Nebraska football, it came to him. He had somehow gotten his hands on some national strength magazines and had pasted the torn out pages on his bedroom walls. “That’s my edge!” he proclaimed.
Bud Meyer had heard that weights were bad for some athletes, however, and declined to buy them for Urban. So after going to a doctor to learn how to use them properly, Bud purchased an inexpensive set – “plastic with cement in the middle,” Urban recalled. They set them up in the dining room where quite often Urban would bump the dining room table during his workout.
“I went from 115 pounds to 175 pounds, running, and hitting home runs, and getting recruiting. And that was astonishing. I would wake up sore. But I had a growth spurt that most kids don’t go through.”
There were four highs schools in Ashtabula and Urban chose St. John because it was noted for excellent football and baseball teams.
Gigi remembered Urban was not very big in his early teens and preferred baseball over football. Then one day she turned around and he was a star on the St. John High football team. She attended a nearby private girls’ boarding school because she could also compete in swimming, but when she returned home it was obvious to her. “I was gone, came back and I went from – in my mind – from being able to rest my head on my brother’s shoulder to (not being able to) that quick.”
The next time was when Gigi went to college, came home and found out her brother was a high school football star.
“I was so amazed. It was like he had come from this little guy playing outside to (playing) both sides of the ball,” said Gigi. “I actually came home to see about three games in a row because I was so blown away that it was Urban out there doing that. It was really cool. I was very proud of him.”
Football was always in his mind and as he grew, Urban was good enough at a smaller Catholic school to start both free safety and tailback. St. John was known as a school where football and baseball players could excel.
“In that environment, he was pretty good,” said Bud.
St. John Coach Paul Kopco was demonstrative and very physical in his coaching technique, often grabbing the face masks of players who failed to execute plays properly – and sometimes worse. At an early age, Urban learned to deal with criticism and responded to Kopco’s hands-on approach by getting bigger, stronger and becoming a leader.
Ken Petrichello, Urban’s defensive coach at St. John, saw a leader emerging at the middle safety position. He remembers seeing Urban for the first time as a “skinny, five-foot-five freshman who was very enthusiastic.
“He was very intense about getting stronger and bigger so he could make an impact on the football team,” said Petrichello. “He started doing weights with a friend and you could see the results: He started getting stronger and taking a more dominant role on the football team.”
As a senior, Urban called defensive signals and was known as a hard-hitting tackler who often separated the ball from the receiver. And when needed on offense – St. John ran the run-and-shoot – Urban filled in as backup tailback. He often played both ways.
“He was a fiery competitor,” said Petrichello, “and he did not want to be out (of the game) at any time – did not want to be off the field. And if he had an injury, he would play through it.”
One vivid scene Petrichello will never forget was when St. John was in the state playoffs against Mogadore Christian Academy from Akron. The team’s starting tailback was out with an injury. Meyer was also hurt with a leg injury, but would saddle up and play both ways. That night as Urban was getting his leg wrapped on the trainer’s table, Petrichello looked up and saw an image of a determined athlete who was willing to sacrifice his body for the team.
“He was getting taped from his hip almost down to his ankle,” said Petrichello. “Standing on the top of the table, he looked almost ten feet tall. The idea was he was showing all the other kids, ‘hey, this guy is going to play whether he’s hurt or not.’”
Meyer played hard, but St. John lost, 10-7.
Urban was named to the all-state football team. But it was baseball that took precedence in his life at the moment.
Urban made faster progress as a shortstop. As a junior, he had begun to develop into a solid infielder who could go deep into the hole, then rocket his throws to first. At the end of the year, he made the all-star team and in the tournament had a strong at-bat. Bud doesn’t recall the exact details. “Even though I don’t think he got a hit, he just hung in there and kept fouling off pitches,” said Bud.
Urban remembers one game where the scouts were watching and, almost like divine intervention, he hit a home run and made several big defensive plays. “It was like God put it there,” he said. “I hit a home run and shortstops don’t usually hit home runs.” On a play between short and third, he backhanded the ball, planted his right food and rifled it to first to get the out. He surprised himself. “I just let it fly,” he said, “and it was like BAP! ‘You’re out!’”
Those kinds of plays began to get him followed by scouts.
Three years later in 1982 when Urban was drafted in the 13th round and signed a professional baseball contract with the Atlanta Braves, Bud had to eat his “there goes the scholarship” words. Gisela served Bud’s critical comment on a platter in what must have been one of her favorite recipes for gourmet broiled crow.
The night before he was to leave for Sarasota, Urban’s friends threw a party. Later in the evening, when they were able to get alone together, Urban and his teenage friend Hood, an aspiring college football player, dreamed the dreams of 17-year olds. Maybe someday, said Hood, the two of them would wind up on the cover of Sports Illustrated — “me for football and you as a baseball player.” Urban made it to the cover of SI, but in a different sport. Hood hasn’t – at least so far.
After he was drafted by the Braves, Urban’s mom, dad and baseball coach all traveled to Atlanta. Only 17, Urban was nonchalantly flipping a football – he wasn’t sure why, but perhaps it portended of things to come – as he and his family walked into the motel room and proceedings began. He turned the negotiations over to his dad, unconcerned about financial details and eager to start playing. He and his baseball coach began chatting.
“My dad is a chemical engineer and he’s real smart,” Urban said. “We are getting calls from agents who want to represent me. And dad said, ‘I’m going to handle it.’ I just wanted to go play ball. So they (the Braves people) come in and sit down. Not minutes later you hear, ‘congratulations!’ And they’re shaking hands. So I go over and sign it – I’m not paying attention … I want to say it was a $13,000 signing bonus … And they’re going to pay for my education. So I don’t think twice about.”
Next, Urban traveled to Sarasota for the Rookie League in the summer of 1982 where his baseball education began. He was sitting around the table at the dining hall, talking with fellow players. “Eighteen and nineteen year olds just babbling,” he said. “One loudmouth is sitting right there, he’s like the forty-second round draft pick. He started talking about the amount of money they all signed for. And I’m listening to the amount of money this guy is talking about and I said, ‘I didn’t get that kind of money.’ And this guy said, ‘Can you believe they tried to get me to sign on the first offer and my agent wouldn’t take it and so they doubled it?’
“So I called my dad and said, ‘by the way, the forty-second rounder got double what I got.”
Life as a professional baseball player didn’t get much better. Being away from home and baffled by his inability to hit professional pitching, he soon decided to give up baseball and return home to Ashtabula in pursuit of football. When he called Bud, however, that idea was quickly quashed. Urban made every excuse possible – “the coach didn’t like me … didn’t like the way I talked … didn’t like the way I parted my hair,” he told his father. To which Bud responded:
“OK, you’re seventeen and you’re grown. So you’re capable of making your own decision. But by the way, you’re not welcome back here. I’m sure your mother would want to see you at Christmas, but other than that, you’re not welcome. There are no quitters in the Meyer family.”
It’s a story Urban repeats every year to his class of new recruits.
(Listen to Buddy Martin’s Sports Page Monday-Friday at 5 p.m. on WOCA.com or in N. Central Florida at 1370 AM/96.7 FM.)