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For Mazur, the scars remain

Illness, financial woes weighing heavily on former Patriot coach

John Mazur has had trouble dealing with medical and financial problems.
John Mazur has had trouble dealing with medical and financial problems. (Globe Staff Photo / Stan Grossfeld)

MOUNT LAUREL, N.J. -- Long before his body was ravaged by Parkinson's disease, John Mazur was the first head coach of the New England Patriots and the last coach of the Boston Patriots.

He coached pro football for 19 years with the Bills, Patriots, Eagles, and Jets, and he received two AFL championship rings from his days as Buffalo's offensive coordinator. He's a tough Marine -- there are no ex-Marines -- who once ordered star running back Duane Thomas, participating in his first workout with the Patriots after being acquired from the Dallas Cowboys, off the team.

But now the 75-year-old Mazur is broken. And nearly broke.

''He's dependent on a walker, his balance is poor, sometimes he has great difficulty expressing himself," said his wife, Bernadine.

Mazur retired in 1980 with a paltry pension of $1,500 a month.

''I wish somebody would do something for us," he said slowly and softly, not really wanting to go public with his private life.

''I hate to beg, I don't want to beg, but . . . I figure they should give a guy a decent cost of living increase. I haven't had one since 1980. I put 19 years in [football] and that was in the days when you had four or five coaches. Now they have 15. That should count for something. It's not like I've been going out as a drunk or an alcoholic."

Mazur's disease has gotten progressively worse since he felt a pain in his hand and leg while at a Jets practice in 1978. He also has bladder problems and hypertension, which leaves him weak and prone to passing out. His wife, a nurse, cares for him, but she works part time.

Mazur said he needs help, but worries more about his wife of 47 years.

''I'm 75 and my wife is 74, and it's a damn shame my wife has to work," he said. ''She comes home dragging her fanny."

His wife worries about him. ''In the past year he's had at least 20 serious falls; he's lucky he hasn't broken any bones." said Bernadine.

Most days he sits in the living room, where his wife leaves refreshments and entertainment within reach. There's a mini-refrigerator filled with Cokes and sandwiches. There are books and a tiny television to watch football.

Coach Mazur tries to smile. He is a proud man, but he is in trouble. ''I feel like I'm getting blitzed every damn time I walk around," he said.

Behind him on the mantel are three footballs with the final scores written on them. They are from the 1964 and '65 Buffalo Bills teams that won the AFL championship. The '66 team won the Eastern Conference, but lost to the Kansas City Chiefs. ''If we won that, we would've been in the first Super Bowl against the Packers," said Mazur.

On the television, Tedy Bruschi's joyful return to the Patriots from a minor stroke is on the news. Mazur said his heart is sad. He sits motionless in his chair, his eyes hollow. When he's alone, he wears a medical alert pendant.

''I feel like a beggar, but I need it. If I was getting a halfway decent pension . . . I feel like I earned it. I'm sad, but I've got my champ there," he said, nodding toward Bernadine.

Bernadine said she is exhausted. ''There's no cure, he's a 200-pound man and I do my best to lift him," she said. ''We haven't been able to put money away. It's mostly his future medical needs I worry about."

Larry Kennan, executive director of the NFL Coaches Association, said the Mazur case is ''a crying shame.

''He's a wonderful man. He's one of the guys that fell through the cracks back in the days when they didn't have a very good retirement pension. I don't have any answers for it."

Kennan said Mazur received a ''nice" gift from the NFL three years ago. But tax records show that the NFL Players Association issued a onetime NFL Alumni Dire Need Charitable Trust grant of $10,000. Enough to build a handicapped-accessible shower and bathroom, but that's it.

''It does embarrass the NFL," said Mazur. ''[But] I'm not sure it does enough to come up with some money."

Said Bernadine, ''Basically they're saying, 'Well this is the way it is.' "

Turbulent tenure
It used to be glorious. Mazur was a quarterback on the Notre Dame team that won the national championship in 1949. In 1951, he was an honorable mention All-American. He coached at Tulane, Marquette, and Boston University before joining the Bills in 1962. There he successfully instituted the two-man quarterback system with Daryle Lamonica and Jack Kemp and enjoyed postseason success. Mazur wears one of the championship rings; the other he gave to his son.

He will never sell it, he said.

He joined the Patriots in 1969 as offensive coordinator. In 1970 he was named interim coach when Clive Rush was fired in midseason, and finished 1-6. In 1971, he was given a one-year contract before Upton Bell was named general manager. He lost 25 pounds worrying about drafting quarterback Jim Plunkett. He slept in his office at Schaefer Stadium and compiled a 6-8 record, the team's best record in five years.

But Bell and Mazur never saw eye to eye. ''You might say that," said Mazur, managing a smile.

''I wanted Carl Garrett and Upton wanted Duane Thomas," he said. ''I fought with him verbally. Carl Garrett was my boy."

Bell dealt Garrett to the Cowboys for the talented but troubled Thomas.

Mazur said Thomas reported to training camp in Amherst and brought attitude with him.

''I was putting in an 'I' formation," he remembers. ''It was sort of new. He [Thomas] got in his [2-point] stance and I said that's not the right stance. I told him I wanted him in this other [3-point] stance and he said, 'I'm me, man. I do what I do, man.' I said, 'You do like hell. Get your [butt] off this field.' So he went in . . . and Jon Morris was in the shower room and they were taking bets on whether Mazur would fire him or he'd get Mazur fired."

The Patriots said Thomas never completed his physical and the league nullified the trade.

At the end of the 1971 season, Bell, who wanted to hire his own coach, made a deal with the Patriots board of directors and owner Billy Sullivan. If Mazur lost the last game to the reigning Super Bowl champion Colts, Mazur would be fired.

But wide receiver Randy Vataha caught an 88-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to give the Patriots a stunning 21-17 upset. News accounts said Bell looked like he was rooting against his own team.

''That's true, I heard that same story," Mazur said. ''That made me feel like I wanted to punch him in the mouth, but I couldn't do it. That would've ruined me, which would have given him satisfaction, too. I didn't want to give him any."

He was offered a one-year contract. His instincts told him not to take it. His wife told him that all the other coaches would get fired and they had families, too. ''I led with my heart," he said.

By mid-1972, after six straight losses, Mazur had resigned, his head coaching record just 9-21.

Social occasions
But today, Mazur remembers New England fondly.

''I won the first game ever at Schaefer Stadium," he said. ''It was against the Giants in an exhibition game [Aug. 15, 1971]. I also won the first game the New England Patriots ever won. It was against Oakland [a 20-6 upset Sept. 19, 1971]. [Jim] Plunkett was good that day. I feel pretty good about that. We love the Boston area. Both my children were born at Boston Lying-In Hospital.

''I liked New England, we didn't have the greatest of talent but guys gave us there hearts," he said. ''I just wished we would've had more of a chance."

Twice a week, Bernadine takes her husband out of their tidy, two-story Colonial, a half-hour outside of Philadelphia. They go to the Ramblewood Country Club, a public golf course, where he sits in the corner of the bar and jokes with guys he used to play golf with, before his body betrayed him. They call his bar seat, ''Coaches Corner" and it has some modest Mazur memorabilia on the walls. Everybody here calls him Coach. He makes up nicknames for all his friends.

Bernadine worries that the word ''country club" implies wealth. She stresses that her husband pays no dues. ''I don't want people to think it's an exclusive country club," she said. ''It's a little public place. I'm going to tell you point blank, we are living on that $1,500 check since 1980. People on welfare get a cost of living increase. We want to stay in our home, we've been here 32 years. We don't know where we can go. We can use help."

Names in the game
Mazur orders some french fries and a Lite beer. The waitress puts the ketchup on the fries, Mazur painstakingly tries to pour the beer but mostly misses the glass, spilling beer on the bar. But then he rallies.

''The thing I missed the most is the association I had with the players -- Jack Kemp, Daryle Lamonica, Cookie Gilchrist," Mazur said.

He still hears from Gilchrist. ''He called me last month and said he's moving to the Philadelphia area."

And Mazur's a big Bill Belichick fan. ''He's doing a hell of a job. And he's a good guy, too. I knew his old man when he was coaching at the Naval Academy."

Somebody asks him whom he'd rather have at QB for a big game: Tom Brady or Jim Plunkett, whom Mazur drafted.

''From what I've seen, Brady would be hard to beat."

What about Brady or Peyton Manning?

''I don't know. But that's a nice choice to make."

How about kicker: Gino Cappelletti or Adam Vinatieri?

''Oh, this kid now is something else. Every time I see a New England game, this kid is winning the damn thing."

Behind him is a framed letter from Congressman Jack Kemp congratulating him on being inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame in 2004.

Kemp thanks him for ''the great lessons you taught us all and the inspiration of your entire life both on and off the football field."

He said he's been invited back to visit by the Buffalo Bills, but never been invited back by the Patriots.

''If we got a raise in salary we'd like to take a nice afternoon train up and visit some friends we have up there," said Mazur. He said that's not possible now.

''I can't get to North Philly on this damn thing [pension]. Now Bob Kraft -- I understand he's a pretty nice fellow. Maybe guys like that can get together and say, 'Let this guy take his trip to Boston.'

''Maybe he doesn't know about my situation."

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