“Just pop it back in.”
Bill Cherpak heard that request perhaps a half-dozen times while playing football at Steel Valley High School a few meandering miles down the Monongahela River from Pittsburgh. The appeal came from his best friend and fellow defensive lineman, Jim Tomsula, whose shoulder had come out of its socket yet again.
Nowadays that type of injury would halt the game. Tears would flow. Trainers and doctors would rush onto the field. The player would see a specialist, and his arm would be in a sling for weeks.
During the early 1980s in steel-forged Homestead, Pa., if your shoulder came out, you merely got the guy next to you to shove it back with the palm of his hand as if he was jamming a loose floorboard back in place.
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“If Jimmy’s shoulder popped out today, he’d be sitting on the oak for the rest of the game and maybe two or three more,” said Tomsula’s uncle, Robert Cloherty.
In the working-class neighborhoods where Tomsula grew up, everyone had a nickname. Cherpak was, and still is, “Cherp.” Cloherty is called “Uncle Tic.”
“My name is Cloherty – C-L-O-H-E-R-T-Y,” he said. “And everybody would pronounce the name ‘Clock-erty.’ Clock. Tick-tock. That’s how I got this name.”
The population is African American, German, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Polish, Slovak and every combination in between. It’s egalitarian and emphatically without pretense. (For example, while Tomsula and his groomsmen wore tuxedos to his wedding, they didn’t wear shoes.)
While Tomsula and his groomsmen wore tuxedos to his wedding, they didn’t wear shoes.
The unifying force: Homestead Steel Works.
At its peak during World War II, the mill employed 15,000 people who made the armor plate that fortified tanks and battleships. Homestead steel forms the backbone of the Empire State Building, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and the Willis Tower, still commonly referred to as the Sears Tower, in Chicago.
The sports teams at Steel Valley High are the Ironmen.
“His parents, my parents all grew up around the mill,” Cherpak recalled. “That’s what you did. I remember when we were young, we’d go pick up our grandparents at the mill after they worked 4 (p.m.) to 12 (a.m.). Everyone had that work ethic from early on because you saw that all the time. It was instilled in you. It was expected more than anything.”
After the war, the mill began a slow decline, and the sprawling facility closed in 1986. But the ethic remained.
It’s what impelled Tomsula to mop floors at a Piggly Wiggly supermarket, split wood for $55 a truckload and deliver newspapers to boost his $9,000-a-year income when he was an assistant coach at Charleston (S.C.) Southern in 1992. It kept him going when he was living out of a red Cadillac Deville – given to him by Uncle Tic – when he took a post as an unpaid volunteer coach at Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C., in 1997.
“He’s a worker,” Cherpak said. “It never bothered him, and he never complained. If something needed to get done, he did it.”
The 47-year-old Tomsula, who stands 5-foot-10, has the out-of-central-casting physique of a plumber or a worker eating from a metal lunch pail high atop a steel girder. Knee and hip injuries from his college playing days give him a waddling gait. He keeps the top of his shirts decidedly unbuttoned, showing off a mane of hair and a gold chain. He has an impressive Tom Selleck-like mustache that has inspired not one, but two, parody Twitter accounts.
He got into weightlifting at an early age and used the power he gained to become a standout high school wrestler and interior lineman on both sides of the football.
“Jim Tomsula is a very, very strong person physically,” said Uncle Tic, who recalled that Tomsula, Cherpak and their buddies used to get around town in an orange, 1979 Chevy Chevette with racing stripes. Once, when they encountered a particularly tight parking spot, the guys stepped out of the car, lifted it and walked it into the space.
Tomsula’s coach at Steel Valley High was George Novak, who has coached in the area for 38 years. Twelve of his former players have reached the NFL, and more than 100 have received Division I scholarships.
Novak – ‘Nov’ to those who know him – noted that Tomsula was neither his most talented nor his brightest pupil.
“He clowned around a lot,” he said.
One of his favorite stories involves a playoff game in which Tomsula and Cherpak were given 15-yard penalties because they weren’t wearing the proper pads. Novak had warned them of the infraction many times. He figured they didn’t want to wear their girdle padding because they didn’t want to seem lumpy to the girls watching from the stands.
Cherpak laughed at the coach’s interpretation.
“We didn’t want to wear any pads in our pants because we just didn’t like them,” Cherpak said. “We just pretended like we didn’t know. We felt like we were he-men, (that) we didn’t need them.”
Cherpak went on to play offensive guard at Pitt. He’s now the head coach at Thomas Jefferson High in nearby Jefferson Hills, Pa. He said that if Tomsula had been a few inches taller, he would have been in high demand from all the top schools. Instead, he went to Division I-AA Middle Tennessee State before transferring to Division II Catawba.
Still, he was one of Novak’s favorites because he was tough, tenacious and had strong morals.
“He never backed down from a fight, and he always stood up for the right side,” Novak said. “If someone was being a bully, he wouldn’t stand for it.”
He never backed down from a fight, and he always stood up for the right side. If someone was being a bully, he wouldn’t stand for it.
George Novak, Jim Tomsula’s coach at Steel Valley High
When Tomsula’s college career ended, Novak hired him as an assistant. Tomsula spent only a season there but honed perhaps his greatest coaching gift, his compassion and understanding for his players. Apologies to Vince Lombardi, but winning wasn’t the only thing in the neighborhoods downriver from Pittsburgh.
Early that season, Tomsula groused about one of the team’s defensive players. He was bad news and a poor fit in the locker room. Get rid of him, he told Novak.
The older coach first calmly dismissed the complaint. But when Tomsula persisted, he called the young assistant into his office and spelled out the situation as forcefully as Tomsula had ever witnessed from his former coach: As long as the player was on the team, he stays in school, Novak said. If we take football away from him, then he drops out and he’s back behind the bar on Braddock Avenue selling drugs.
Novak closed with this: “He’s going to be here tomorrow. Are you?” Then he turned and walked out the door.
Tomsula said he’ll never forget the conversation and the lesson.
“George Novak looked through his decisions – what’s going to happen afterward? What’s the domino effect? Where do the dominoes fall?” he said. “I think that’s why I look at things the way I do. He really gave me the true essence of what sports should be about, the purity of it that makes it awesome. Sadly, in this day and age ... well, we’ve got to get back to it.”
Like Novak, Tomsula has a soft spot for the underdog. Players with odd backgrounds or atypical body types never are dismissed outright. Tomsula says it means you just have to work a little harder to develop them, something he did first at Catawba, then NFL Europe and finally with the 49ers.
The team’s roster has been filled with late-round or undrafted defensive linemen, from Ricky Jean Francois to Ian Williams to Tony Jerod-Eddie, all of whom credit Tomsula with their NFL careers.
And it isn’t only players who are loyal to him.
Tomsula was universally roasted in January for his introductory news conference in which he seemed to go off on a bizarre tangent in recognizing “Joan in payroll,” “Vilma at the front desk” and “the boys downstairs making that great Mexican feast at Christmas.”
The delivery may have been awkward, but the sentiment was real.
Cherpak spent time with Tomsula in Santa Clara after his friend became the 49ers’ interim coach at the close of the 2010 season. One night, they watched game film for hours in his office before going downstairs to the equipment room.
“The maintenance guys were down there in the pool,” Cherpak said. “And Jim’s like, ‘Oh, these are my guys!’ So we went in and talked to all those guys. He turns to me and goes, ‘This is where you find the real people.’”
The 49ers went on to beat the Cardinals in the season finale, 38-7. Among the first to greet Tomsula after the game were the same crew from a few days earlier.
“There they were waiting for him to congratulate him,” Cherpak said. “And that’s just him. Everybody’s the same to him. It doesn’t matter who you are, if you’re on top of the world or struggling. That’s who he is.”