Rich Lalami

My good friend Rich had served in the Marines and was a football coach. He could talk the way people think coaches or Marines talk with their peers: "colorful" and to the point. He was also a voracious reader, had a good sense of humor, and a master’s degree in education. He taught mathematics and biology.

He was eight years younger than I was. We met when he was still playing high school football and I had already done a tour of duty in the Marines. We both lifted weights at a gym in Hayward, California.

After high school, he joined the Marines too. He later collected Marine Corps memorabilia. I think he was prouder of his service than anything else.

He was a big guy, not tall, but wide like a football lineman that he was in college. He played on the San Francisco State University team. At one time San Francisco State was known for football and produced 13 National Football League players (the school discontinued football in 1995). One of Rich’s football teammates was Jim Schmitz, who later became the U.S. National Team weightlifting coach.

Rich’s full name was Richard Lalami. While teaching school and working on a master’s degree, he took part-time jobs as a peacekeeper at some San Francisco saloons. He also formed, coached, and played on a rugby team. He coached football at both the high school and community college levels and was a strength coach at Stanford.

We lifted weights together, played handball, and drank beer. He was my son’s godfather and I was the best man at his wedding. We had a lot of fun. On bad knees and with other physical discomforts from years of contact sports, Rich continued playing rugby. “I don’t feel right all week if I don’t get my hits,” he would say.

Rich Lalami Buck Lionheart cartoon

Rich had an alias. He was Rich Lalami but also Buck Lionheart. I was doing a cartoon strip at the time and a football coach was a featured character. The name Buck Lionheart sounded rugged and coach-like.

Buck was really Rich, or vice versa and thinly disguised. But first I had to ask him if he would be offended by the obvious reference. One day he came by and asked me to look at his truck. He had gotten personalized license plates that read “LIONHRT.”

Though he loved collision sports, I never once knew him to purposely antagonize anyone or provoke trouble. There wasn’t any bully or meanness in him. In fact, when you got to know him you discovered there was really a quiet shyness about the guy. It just didn’t show at first. What did show was that he hated pretentiousness and would have none of it.

One night while working the door at a singles bar, some motorcycle gang members came in and roughed up some of the patrons. Two of the unwelcome ended up in the hospital when Rich and the other bouncer intervened. He came to my house the next day, bruised and with stitches in his forehead, but the bad guys got the worst of it.

He could be blunt and had no patience for half-efforts or excuses from students or athletes. If you griped about something, even something you thought fairly important, sometimes he’d say, “Hey, coach (he called you 'coach' if he liked you), don’t sweat the small stuff.”

Early in 1990, he called and asked me to stop by. I did and learned he had cancer and was scheduled for surgery. It was advanced. On March 6, 1990, Rich was gone. He was survived by his wife and three children. More than thirty years have gone by and I still miss my good friend.

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