BY JEFF FALK
It’s a bit odd, even a tad peculiar to see Bob ‘Gump’ May decked out in Palmyra Cougar garb these days.
May is one of the most traditional, loyal and dedicated individuals one will ever come across. But make no mistakes about it, May is first and foremost a football coach.
With all due respects to Frank Hetrick at Annville-Cleona, Harold ‘Bud’ Getz at Lebanon and John Carley at Elco, May is also one of the most knowledgeable assistant coaches in the central Pennsylvania area. With his experience and football connections, it’s almost like Palmyra has two head coaches.
This season, May is serving as Cougar head coach Chris Pope’s line coach. But for 33 years – from 1976 to 2008 – May successfully and capably headed rival Hershey High’s football program.
“I learn every day,” said the 67-year-old May. “Football’s a game. You can always learn. Just when you think you know it all, you lose. It’s reacting. It’s communication. It’s psychology in a way.
“My wife says I coach all the time,” May continued. “She says, ‘You’re always trying to do something’. Coaching’s fun. And football is the ultimate game. Number one, it’s tougher than snot. It’s physically hard, but you can have different skill levels. To me, it’s a great vehicle to teach. You can teach there the way teachers would like to be able to in the class room. That’s why I do it.”
At the time, May’s departure from Hershey was somewhat controversial, but he landed on his feet. He spent two seasons as an assistant coach at Bloomsburg University, but was away from his family in Hershey for much of that time.
Then prior to the 2011 campaign, he reconnected with Pope, who played for May at Hershey in the mid-1980s. Pope saw May as an opportunity to improve his staff and grow as a coach.
May saw Palmyra as a way to stay involved with the sport and the profession he loved.
“I called him up and said, ‘Do you need a coach?'” said May. “He (Pope) said, ‘Coach, I’d be honored.’ I knew what I was getting into when I got the job.
“He’s (Pope) a great guy,” May added. “When I came home (from Bloomsburg) I looked at going to help some other guys. But I thought Chris needed my help. He said that besides his father that I was the most important man in his life.”
“I was actually dropping off film,” remembered Pope. “That’s when he asked me if I needed a coach. It shocked me at first. But it didn’t take me more than a second and I said, ‘yes’. It’s taken off.”
To make their new relationship work, May and Pope have had to re-think and re-invent their subordinate-authority roles.
One doesn’t go from a 33-year head coach to an assistant over night. And one must really be secure in oneself to have a such a strong personality under you.
“Chris always tells me, ‘I brought you down here to mentor me, to help me become a better coach’,” said May. “Coach has to throttle me down sometimes. My wife does it too. My daughters do it too.
“You don’t think I’ve toned it down?” May continued. “I’ve got to know I’m not the head coach any more. I was a lieutenant in the marine corps, not a general. When you’re an assistant you can get closer to the kids. You can have a good rapport with the kids.”
“Chris always tells me, ‘Coach, I brought you in here to help me do it, but I don’t want you to do it for me.’ Chris is a good communicator. He says, ‘If you can make me a better coach, do it.'”
“There’s been a little adjustment,” said Pope. “But with his military background, he understands the chain of command. It’s really worked well.
“It was probably more awkward for me because that was Coach May,” continued Pope. “I would never refer to him as ‘Gump’. Now we’re so close that we’re relaxed. We’re like peers.”
May’s mere presence commands respect. And to a degree, that’s because May is very respectful, in his own gruff way.
“I’m the team’s old man,” said May. “The younger coaches are great with me. They worry about me sometimes when I’m the last guy down from the press box. Most of them weren’t born when I started coaching. Chris brought me in as a resource, but he’s going to make the final decisions. We’re all just passing through.
“It’s good to be around younger guys,” May continued. “It keeps you young. Someone once told me, ‘Associate with the older coaches and become friends with the younger coaches.’ But schools aren’t hiring coaches any more.”
“It’s amazing having someone like him on your staff,” said Pope. “His role is to help me become a better head coach. You don’t usually get an opportunity to have someone like him on staff. He’s been an invaluable assistant. He brings in a wealth of knowledge, and other things.
“I think Coach May has coaching in his blood,” added Pope. “He loves football and he like coaching the guys.”
Although the Palmyra-Hershey rivalry isn’t quite as fierce as it once was, May could’ve never imagined the day when he would be coaching his neighbors to the east. But to May – and to a certain extent Pope as well – influencing young lives through football is more important than any rivalry.
“No, I never thought of that,” said May. “Hershey had a great run of talent. But who knows about tomorrow. When I left Hershey, it was at eight in the morning, and by noon I was in Bloomsburg. I go from one place to another and never look back. Who cares what you did yesterday?
“I don’t know about the future,” May added. “Tomorrow looks good. I go one year at a time. As long as I can go and feel like I’m doing something, I’ll keep doing it. You can’t put a price on family, but they (his family) know I like coaching. As long as I can coach and know some people, I’ll find a job somewhere.”
“He was my head coach,” said Pope, a 1987 graduate of Hershey High. “I played at Hershey under Coach May. I always kept in contact with him.”
And apparently Pope isn’t alone in that.
“Football has always been a vehicle to express yourself and work with kids,” said May. “It’s the kids. I’ve got former players all over the place. They’re all former players. They’re my boys. That’s what coaching is.
“It (leaving Hershey High) just became time,” continued May. “I took on a school board member. Without going into a whole lot of things, it just became time to leave, for various reasons. I probably would’ve liked to have stayed. I’d still be teaching and coaching there. I think salary has a lot to do with it.”
The football culture and history in Palmyra is far different from the one in Chocolatetown, partly because ‘Palm Town’ never had a Robert ‘Gump’ May.
“It’s been a great experience. It’s fun,” said May of his last two seasons in Palmyra. “Right now, we have a heck of a challenge. We have a numbers issue. That happens at schools. But we have great kids. Our kids are hard-working. Last Friday we dressed 26, but they played their butts off. That’s what it’s about. The way we’re looking at it is, ‘Let’s embrace the challenge’. What a great lesson for the kids.
“I’ve always been in a situation where I’ve had to work my butt off,” May continued. “Ultimately, great football teams have great talent. And you can’t recruit, except in the hallways. But Palmyra has no coaches in the building.”
It’s just been great working with him,” said Pope. “Coach May is a great man, he really is.”