Jaywalking: Abbey honor well deserved

Monday, March 19, 2018

Don Abbey was looking for a little advice from Deerfield Academy football coach Jim Smith in 1965.

Abbey, a South Hadley native and 1966 Deeerfield graduate, asked his coach where he should play at college.

“I told him, ‘You are a smart student, a smart kid, why don’t you go play for a smart coach,’” Smith recalled.

Smith was referring to a young coach that he was quite familiar with. That man, Joseph Paterno, was still an assistant coach at Penn State University in the fall of 1965, but Smith knew he was going to be taking over for Rip Engle, who had coached at Penn State since 1950 and was going to be retiring. Sure enough, Engle retired that spring and when Abbey arrived on campus in the fall of 1966, Paterno was the head coach. Now the CEO of the Abbey Company, a real estate investment and management firm, Abbey is being honored as the recipient of the Henry A. Butova Award during the 56th annual Western Massachusetts chapter of the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame Banquet, which takes place April 8 at UMass at 5 p.m. Tickets are available to public for $25 and can be purchased by calling American International College at 413-205-3939.

Smith will be in attendance that night at the request of Abbey, who has had quite the life story since his days playing for South Hadley High School, then Deerfield.

I got some of that story from Smith last week, when I spoke to the 86-year-old former coach over the phone. As is the case, Smith not only gave me the lowdown on Abbey, but also several other stories pertaining to his former player.

Smith, who began coaching at Deerfield in 1960, said that the first Western Mass. Hall of Fame Banquet was held in 1962. For years, it was held at Deerfield, where Smith had his own players serve as waiters. He got involved because former Deerfield athletic director Frank Boyden got an invitation and suggested Smith go in his place.

Each year the event has a guest speaker, and one year the committee got Walter Cronkite to speak to the crowd. Smith recalled that one cantankerous old member was not so thrilled to the have famous newscaster as the guest speaker.

“What the hell does he know about football?” Smith recalled the man asking before the banquet.

Unbeknownst to Smith, when Cronkite stepped to the podium that night, the first thing he said to the crowd was, “You may be wondering what I’m doing speaking at a football banquet. Well my uncle was the head coach at Notre Dame and I was the first play-by-play announcer at Oklahoma.”

Sure enough, Cronkite did call Sooners’ games, making his debut on Sept. 25, 1937, when he was 20 years old.

Smith was also on the first committee in 1961 to set up the Henry Butova Award, which was named for the longtime athletic director at American International College in Springfield. Butova began at Springfield in 1947 and helped established the modern sports program at the school, which included him coaching football for nine years, and baseball for 18. He passed away in 1965 at the age of 46, and the school named the basketball gymnasium in his name. It was the site where the Pioneer Valley Regional School boys’ team played one week ago when it lost to Maynard High School in the Division IV state semifinals.

The award was set up to be given to an individual who strongly supports athletics through distinguished activities or career after playing days are over. Past recipients include former coaches, athletic directors and those who support athletics, such as Greenfield businessman Don Lorenz, who supported UMass athletic teams and was honored in 1996.

Abbey grew up in South Hadley and played football for South Hadley High School, including on the 1963 team that went undefeated at 8-0. Abbey was the running back that year and Tigers outscored opponents, 238-12. As fate turned out, Abbey’s father was a dentist and had enough money to put his talented son into Deerfield to get a top-notch education.

“He was a very good student and a pretty good football player,” Smith joked.

Abbey spent two years playing fullback and middle linebacker for Smith at Deerfield. Smith remembers being impressed by the 6-foot, 3-inch, 230-pound Abbey.

“He had pretty good speed for a big kid,” Smith said. “He got into every Ivy League college but wanted to play big-time football.”

That led Abbey to ask Smith for advice one day.

“He asked me, ‘Coach, if you were in my shoes, where would you go big time?’” Smith recalled.

That led Smith to suggest Penn State, where Paterno was just beginning his storied career. JoePa began coaching in 1966 when Abbey was a freshman. At that time, freshmen could not play, so Abbey waited a year and then spent the next three years as a fullback for the Nittany Lions.

In three seasons at Penn State, Abbey rushed for 778 yards and 12 touchdowns. He led the team in scoring in 1967 when the Nittany Lions went 8-2-1, and was part of the unbeaten 1968 and 1969 teams that went 11-0 and won the Orange Bowl both years, finishing second in the nation.

After graduating from college, Abbey considered following his father into dentistry, but wound up in real estate, and in 1990, founded The Abbey Company in California, where he lives today. His estimated worth is $800 million and he has owned some impressive mansions, including one that Smith happened to catch on a television show on the Home and Garden Channel.

He never forgot where he came from, however. In 2003, Abbey fully-financed a 40-year reunion dinner at the Log Cabin for the 1963 South Hadley team that went undefeated. It was there that he met South Hadley coach Ray Ferro, who was head coach of the Tigers from 2000 through 2010. Abbey asked Ferro that night what state-of-the-art helmets were going for nowadays, and Ferro told him the Riddell Revolution was the helmet and that it cost between $225 and $230.

“He asked me how many players we had on the team and I told him between 70 and 75 and he said, ‘Order seven dozen and send me the bill,’” Ferro recalled.

Abbey also told Ferro to order seven dozen of the best shoulder pads he could find. The two men became friends, and Ferro said that over the years Abbey has paid for uniforms, sideline coats, sleds, dummies and other items. It got to the point that Abbey told Ferro to order whatever he needed and send the bill to him. When Ferro retired from coaching in 2010, Abbey continued to purchase equipment and does to this day. He also comes back for games each season, including the Turkey Day tilt.

“He has been extremely generous,” Ferro said.

It led Ferro to send a letter to Paterno prior to his 2012 passing. Ferro wrote to the coach that Abbey has been extremely generous to the Tigers’ program. Paterno wrote back, explaining that Abbey was also generous to Penn State over the years.

That generosity will be celebrated in two weeks, and Smith will be on hand to see one of his former players honored.

Jason Butynski is a Greenfield native and Recorder sportswriter. His email address is jbutynski@recorder.com. Like him on Facebook and leave your feedback at www.facebook.com/jaybutynski.