NEW CASTLE —
Turns out, “All the Way Down” was a lot further than Bob Burnett figured.
Twenty-six years after his Frew Mill School team captured hearts, imaginations and the WPIAL Class A basketball title — the only juvenile correctional facility ever to do so — the Longhorns’ head coach is reliving that magical 1987-88 season through a recently released book he has authored.
“All The Way Down: Changing Hearts and Minds” tells the tale of a group of delinquent teens remanded to a now-defunct detention facility in Shenango Township. Together, they overcame various emotional issues and the fact that most had never played organized ball before to become a championship team. Burnett guided them along the way, even though he was going through a painful divorce at the time.
Sounds like the makings of a great movie.
Oh yeah, that’s in the works, too.
Hollywood writer and director Monique Sorgen already has converted Burnett’s manuscript into a screenplay that she’s shopping around to potential backers.
“All The Way Down” was the rallying cry used by such Frew Mill stars as Derrick Myers, Mike Harris, George Johnson and their teammates to declare their intent to capture the WPIAL crown. Although the book detailing that quest has been finished since 1998, it was only released in December.
“Once I finished it, I really didn’t know what to do as far as publishing it was concerned,” said Burnett, who also was Frew Mill’s principal at the time. He had agreed to a one-season shot at coaching the Longhorns while the team’s prior coach took a year off. “What finally made me get it published was when the movie came into the picture. I’m thinking that if there is a movie, and I don’t have the book out, that would be stupid.
“If that had never happened, I don’t know if I ever would have published it.”
The film connection came through Harris, who went on to become a big-time manager and founder of a Philadelphia-based sports marketing firm. On a flight with Sorgen, he shared the story of his Frew Mill days, and she became intrigued enough to request a copy of Burnett’s book in order to do a screenplay.
Burnett began writing his story a few months after the Longhorns’ championship season concluded, but subsequent career moves and responsibilities limited the time he could devote to the project.
“But with each year that went by, I got to thinking ‘Boy, that was a heck of an accomplishment,’ ” he said. “It had never been done before, and it’s never been done since. And that group of kids was special. As I look back now, I see how that (season) changed attitudes about those kids, even amongst themselves.
“I received a Facebook note from a kid who wasn’t even on the team. He was at the institution, but not on the team, and he said, ‘I didn’t play for you, Coach Burnett, but that inspired me to be successful in my life.’ Stuff like that made me realize, ‘Wow, that’s huge.’ ”
Burnett’s book offers impressive game-by-game recollections of the Longhorns’ season, mined from scorebooks; conversations with players like Myers, Harris and Rich Miller, with whom Burnett has stayed in touch; and memories he says are burned into his mind.
“If we go back to the first game we played, which was Kennedy Christian, even 25 years later, almost every aspect of that doggone game is still in my brain,” he said. “I can remember what I was thinking, saying, and how each player was reacting.”
MORE THAN SCORES
In addition to reconstructing the season, there are two things that Burnett resolved to do in writing his book. One was not to dwell on the fact that the Longhorns had one female player on their roster, a rarity especially in the 1980s.
“She never really played in a varsity game,” he said, before adding with a laugh, “although in the movie script, she’s a star. She’s making all kinds of improbable shots, but I didn’t write the movie script.”
Burnett’s second goal was to pull no punches in describing the pain he was experiencing while his wife sought a divorce, and the passages that touch on that matter are packed with raw, sometimes uncomfortable, emotion.
“I put that stuff in there because I didn’t want somebody to pick up a book and read just a straight basketball story,” he said. “Not only did the kids have emotional issues to deal with, but I did as well. That season helped me get my mind off some of the things that I was going through.
“I actually hope it will be read by somebody having problems with their children, their marriage or other problems with life in general, and maybe they’ll get something out of that.”
READING THE BOOK
In just a few months’ time, Burnett’s book already has received some impressive attention. He did a half-hour interview with a Boston radio station on his mentoring of Frew Mill’s players, and he’s headed this weekend to speak in Baltimore, where the Baltimore Times Book Club made “All The Way Down” its book of the month for April.
Local readers will have just a bit more work to do, though, than those in such far-flung cities. Although Burnett’s original manuscript used actual names of schools and players around Lawrence County, his publisher’s attorneys suggested that he use fictional monikers in the final product as a legal precaution.
To help in translation, Burnett has kept each opponents’ nickname the same — the Farmdale Longhorns, the Oakland Scotties, the Moraine Wildcats, and so forth — and in many cases, he even has preserved the initials of spotlighted individuals. Legendary Mohawk coach John Samsa becomes Jack Sullivan, Wilmington mentor Kim Foley (in a hilarious story about what Burnett perceives as a pre-game “clothes war”) turns into Kyle Farrior.
Burnett himself takes the name Wendell Burns, and a certain New Castle News (a.k.a. Newberry Times) sports writer who fails to pick Frew Mill to win the section title (thanks for that reminder, Bob) is rechristened Darryl Benjamin.
“After I changed the names, I thought how all those kids who played against us — who are now in their 40s and who still live in Lawrence County and have kids of their own — would have fun figuring out who’s who, and saying to their children, ‘That’s my character,’ ” Burnett said.
Still, Burnett’s readers won’t be limited just to former coaches and players who crossed Frew Mill’s path 26 years ago. Now the head track coach and assistant girls basketball coach at Cornell High School, Burnett said he finds some of his current athletes quoting him from the book.
“When people read it, I really want them to get into the people as much as the basketball,” he said. “We’re all flawed, and we all have something to overcome in life. My kids on the team did, and I did, too. And I think that’s the most important thing.
“It was tough, because you have to be careful what you say, or you can be held accountable. I tried to treat it very tenderly, but I thought it was necessary.”
NEW CASTLE —
Turns out, “All the Way Down” was a lot further than Bob Burnett figured.
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