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Undefeated Saints of ’78 and ’81 gather to remember

SUFFOLK – Twenty-five years later, they are psychiatrists and bankers, engineers and pharmacists, police officers and newspaper reporters.

Now in their early 40s, these men are apt to measure success in terms of individual achievement, or by the accomplishments of their children and grandchildren.

But 25 and 28 years ago, they were part of two teams that found perfection on the football field, and they reunited Sunday night to recall those glory days and to honor one of the coaches who spurred them to be the best team they could be.

Members of Nansemond-Suffolk Academy’s 1978 and 1981 undefeated football teams gathered Sunday for a night of memories, toasts and game films to mark the 25th anniversary of that school’s last perfect pigskin season.

The guest of honor was Coach Terry Crigger, whose direction and high expectations were two of the primary reasons cited by former players for their success on the gridiron.

“He could make you play the best you could possibly play,” said Danny Holly, running back for the 1981 team.

Holly, who went on to play college football for the University of Richmond, added that the most surprising thing about his team’s record was “to come from a small school and do what we did.”

The school’s senior class that year had just 76 students, and opponents included such schools as Norfolk Academy, Trinity Episcopal, Gill, Isle of Wight Academy, Frederick Military Academy and Prince Edward Academy.

The 1981 defense gave up scores in only two games. The team’s offense helped Holly set both scoring and rushing records.

“Defeat was just not in your vocabulary,” Crigger told his former players during dinner at the Nansemond River Golf Club.

Rob Pitsenbarger, who played noseguard on the 1981 team’s defense, said he still remembers the coach entreating the boys on his team to “chase perfection, and maybe you’ll catch excellence along the way.”

“We were fortunate enough to achieve perfection one year, and we almost achieved it” the following year — in 1982 — when the team ended with a 9-1 record, Pitsenbarger, who organized the event, said.

The 11-0 Saints of 1981 have been on his mind a lot recently, he said, noting that “this has just been a time of life to reflect on things that have been meaningful to me.”

“Without question,” he said, “the time spent with the coach was for me one of the most meaningful times of my life.”

Other players talked about some of the coach’s favorite maxims and how they have found the sayings to still have meaning to them today.

“If you’re not 15 minutes early, you’re late,” one recalled the coach saying.

“That’s (Vince) Lombardi time,” Crigger interjected.

Another favorite Lombardi-ism that he paraphrased for his teams was “A man that won’t be beat, can’t be beat.”

Pitsenbarger, a psychiatrist for the Chesapeake Community Services Board, said Crigger and Lombardi, the legendary Green Bay Packers coach from 1959 to 1967, approached molding their players in much the same fashion.

“Lombardi created a passion for the players to live for the coach and to win for the coach,” he explained.

Other players agreed, noting that their negative memories of that period were of times when they had let their coach down.

Crigger coached in the Suffolk Public School system from 1971 to 1975, then moved to Nansemond-Suffolk Academy in 1976, where he was head football coach and athletic director until 1984. He left the school and went into private business until 1994, when he returned to again take over as head coach of the football team. He now coaches the school’s JV team.

One member of the 1978 team has a son on that JV team at NSA, and he said he is glad the coach is still influencing boys on the football field.

“My son is 14, and he’s coming home from school, and Crigger is having the same effects on him that he had on us,” said Doug Russell.

High on the list of those positive effects is the ability to shape boys into men, team members said.

“We had a crazy side to us, and you were able to channel that craziness and make us focus,” Max Morehead told Crigger.

“The coach is a man of very high ideals and values and was very willing to share those values and share of himself with young men developing into adulthood,” Pitsenbarger agreed.

“The responses I’ve gotten (to an email soliciting comments about Coach Crigger) suggest to me that I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.

Even Virginia’s General Assembly agreed with the sentiment.

In its 2001 session, both Assembly houses agreed to a resolution commending Crigger for his 2000 team’s state title, noting that it “was a tribute to the talents and teamwork of the players and the leadership of Division II Coach of the Year Terry Crigger.”

But the men gathered in Suffolk Sunday night obviously didn’t need politicians to tell them about the leadership skills of their former coach. They came from as far away as Georgia to honor him at this reunion in the middle of a busy Christmas season.

“I think of the lessons I learned” from him, Pitsenbarger said, “like the value of preparedness, of dignity, of determination and of toughness.”

Those lessons were important on the football field, but, for many of the players on those two teams, they have proved invaluable to their lives as adults.