Man on Fire

Maple Heights football was in a rut -- until a millionaire stockbroker showed up.

Jeff Rotsky Maple Heights football
The boy received a note during class today. It read: Please see Coach Rotsky after school.

There is no better note to receive.

There is no scarier note to receive.

It's now after 3 o'clock. The coach is supposed to be doing an interview, explaining how a 40-year-old stockbroker from Gates Mills became one of Ohio's most successful high school football coaches. But his office is crowded with people clawing for his attention: Players pop in and out, assistant coaches slip out of work clothes, the team's quarterback quietly waits to discuss the latest scholarship offer.

The hour is rapidly disappearing, and Jeff Rotsky's barely said a word about himself. There just isn't enough time. When your clock moves as fast as his -- when each moment is teachable, each more important than the last -- there is never enough time.

Now the boy, the one with the note, is standing in the doorway, lumpy and sad-eyed, backpack slung over his XXL T-shirt. He has come to this door reluctantly, and for good reason. Behind him is freedom: the battered suburb of Maple Heights, where he can do what he pleases -- at least until Mom gets home. Before him, in the football office, stands four years of sweat in the eyes, of waking up sore, of putting his future in the hands of a man they call crazy.

Rotsky doesn't look crazy -- not at first glance. He's just a shade over five foot ten, small on football's measurement table. He's thin but not skinny, athletic but not muscular, tanned but not dark. As always, he wears thin-rimmed glasses and a Maple Heights hat, which rests haphazardly atop his head, as if pulling it all the way on would have taken way too much time. In this sea of hulking high schoolers and fit young assistants, the man in charge often appears the most out of place.

But this boy -- he's scared. He tries to evade Rotsky's teeth-gritting scowl, but the coach's eyes are too fast.

"Is this what you want to do instead of play football?" Rotsky screeches, pointing toward the outside world, where the boy's friends presumably wait. The kid, a freshman, went out for football early in the season, but quit. "You'd rather hang with Thug City, U.S.A., than be a part of this?"

"They're not thugs," the boy mutters. Then he rattles off excuses for why he can't play: "I have to do my homework." "I have to watch my nephew." "I don't have any football stuff."

Rotsky doesn't understand. How can the kid not want to be a part of this?

The coach turns to Anthony Wright, his polite, soft-spoken quarterback, who still waits patiently to talk about college. "Tell me something," Rotsky hollers. "How did it feel when you went out on Friday night and went 7-for-7 for 283 yards and four touchdowns? How did that feel?"

"Good," Anthony answers quietly, looking slightly embarrassed to be there.

The freshman is unconvinced. So Rotsky keeps going.

"You just wanna be known as a quitter?"

He doesn't.

"It's hard work, isn't it?"

It is.

"What is the best thing you've ever done in your life? Is there anything you can say right now that you're proud of?"

There isn't.

Rotsky orders the boy to call his sister, find out if she can watch his nephew. The boy is on the phone for less than a minute when Rotsky takes the receiver. "Tamika? Hi. This is Coach Rotsky at Maple Heights. Listen, this handsome young man here could be a tremendously talented individual . . .

"Have your mother call me," the coach says. "He needs to stay with us. Today. Otherwise," he says, expertly following his fierce sales pitch with a friendly threat, "I'd have to hunt him down and chop his ankle off." He hangs up the phone. The boy heads for practice.

The coach talks briefly with Wright, tells him to do some research on the Air Force Academy, which is considering offering him a scholarship.

Rotsky is finally ready to be interviewed. He talks for a minute or two. Looks at his watch. It's almost 4 p.m. "I've got about two minutes," he says.

To understand just how far they've come, how far Jeff Rotsky has pushed and pulled and dragged them, you have to understand how far they fell.

For that, you'll need to see Dave Miller. You can find him roaming the halls with a walkie-talkie. Before he became athletic director, he was a teacher and coach. Before that, a player.

In 1984, when Miller arrived at Maple Heights, there was no question: He was going to play football. Maple wasn't a powerhouse; it was -- and always had been -- a wrestling and basketball school. But from Labor Day to Thanksgiving, football players ruled the halls. Especially on Fridays, when talk swirled around that evening's game, around the beaming, beefy boys in the shiny maroon jerseys. And especially on Friday nights, after the game, when cars poured into the parking lot at Teresa's Pizza. "It was definitely the thing to do," Miller, now 36, recalls.

When he graduated in 1988, Miller said goodbye to his playing days. He returned in 1995 to teach and coach. But his school -- and his hometown -- had changed.

Miller grew up in a predominantly white, working-class city. But as the middle class emptied to the outer-ring suburbs, replaced by young black families desperate to escape Cleveland, poverty arrived with them. By 2000, the community's black population had swelled from 14 percent to 44 percent in just a decade. The shift at the high school has been even more pronounced. With few white families moving in, and the ones who remained opting for Catholic schools, Miller's alma mater is now almost 90 percent black.

As the suburb and school stumbled, the Mustangs took on the personality of an inner-city team. Kids stopped coming out and the roster shrank, sometimes to below 30. Coach after coach dreamed of turning it around, but each was pulled out as fast as he was pulled in, riding a wave of apathy and frustration. In just a few years, old social norms were completely reversed. "It wasn't cool to be part of the football team," says Miller. "There were kids walking the halls who should be playing."

At the end of 2001, the program was in complete disarray: The Mustangs had lost 20 games in a row. Miller knew he needed to make a change. But who was going to take over a program that hadn't won in two years? And could anyone, working part-time at a school with problems much bigger than football, really make something of this program?

Miller didn't know. Even after he received an unexpected application -- one bearing the name of a man known for turning things around -- his expectations weren't exactly high.

"We just wanted our kids to look the part," Miller says. "We didn't want it to be an embarrassment."

"I'll be back in 10 minutes," Coach Rotsky said.

It was a warm April afternoon in 2001. Rotsky was in the weight room at St. Peter Chanel, a small, proud Catholic school in Bedford, just down the road from Maple Heights. Football season was still months away, but Rotsky's players were lifting -- bench presses, cleans, squats -- as if it were their job. They were coming off two consecutive 13-win seasons and a loss in the Division V state title game. The roster was chock-full of seniors, guys who still had the vomit-flavored taste of a state championship in their mouths. If the Chanel Firebirds were ever going to win state, 2001 was the year.

"We knew that it was going to happen," says quarterbacks coach Joe Klir. Perhaps better than anyone, Klir understood how remarkable a feat it would be. A Chanel grad himself, Klir had returned to his alma mater to coach in 1994, when the program was literally a punch line. Mired in a 48-game losing streak, the program was such a joke that David Letterman ribbed them in a monologue.

That all changed in 1997, when the school hired a fiery young Jew to make over its football program. At the time, Jeff Rotsky, just 31, hadn't accomplished much as a coach. But his backstory bespoke a man worth a chance.

He had come from Beachwood, where he grew up defying the athletic gifts he'd been given. "He's the runt," says older (and, at six foot three, bigger) brother Jack.

At Beachwood High, Jack played quarterback, Jeff wide receiver. "I don't think he was a good athlete," coach Joe Perella says of Jeff. "But he made himself a good athlete. He never dropped a pass. It was amazing."

In one game, "We thought he had a broken leg," Perella says. "And he wanted to play. He's still mad at me because of that. He was dragging his leg. I swear to God! His leg was dragging. "

Rotsky was recruited by Case, where he played receiver for four years. But after he graduated, football had to take a back seat. Rotsky enrolled at Case's business school and took a summer internship on Wall Street, where he fell in love -- with a woman named Gina, and with turning small piles of money into big ones.

He came back to Ohio, started his career as a financial consultant for Kidder Peabody, and was quickly promoted to senior vice president. At 27, he and Gina, now his wife, started the Rotsky Foundation for Mentors, a nonprofit that pairs successful adults with Cleveland middle schoolers. Then he moved to Solomon Brothers Smith Barney, where he became a top earner, and moved into a six-bedroom home in Gates Mills.

His goal never changed: By age 30, Rotsky wanted desperately to have enough money -- and power -- to be a broker by morning and a football coach by afternoon. He arrived at "that magic number" in 1996. By age alone, he was still an infant in the business world. But he had the freedom to come and go as he pleased. So he took a job as the head football coach at South High, but was demoted to co-head coach after a teacher -- who under union rules got first dibs on the opening -- filed a grievance. Still, Rotsky installed his brand of coaching: long hours, big expectations, and a whole lot of yelling. The team had gone 0-10 the year before. It had just 12 seniors -- 6 of whom became fathers that year.

They won their division.

But it wasn't Rotsky's program, so he went looking for a school that would let him take charge. Chanel was at the top of his list. He knew all about the 48-game losing streak, knew the team had won just 12 games in nine years. But he also knew the school had top-notch wrestling and hoops programs. "How the hell can they not have a great football team?" he wondered. The answer: They could.

Rotsky asked his business partner, Eric Stephenson, to coach the linemen and found a middle school math teacher, Ryan Williams, to coach defense. Rotsky ran the offense, modeling it after himself: fast-paced, aggressive, always on the go -- no huddles, of course. Why stand around and talk when you can just go?

Rotsky kept one coach from the Chanel staff: Joe Klir, who still remembers their first meeting.

"His goals were getting kids to college, winning a conference championship," Klir recalls. "I'm thinking to myself, 'This guy's nuts.'"

After all, this was the North Coast League. Lake Catholic was a virtual dynasty. The Firebirds were a doormat. "State playoffs?" Klir thought. "It hasn't happened in the history of the school. This guy is crazy."

They took over in April, and it was ugly: Chanel finished that first year 1-9. But all season long, after every practice, the coaches fanned out to every youth practice they could find, to sell Chanel football as if it were a blue-chip stock. Catholic, Jewish, Baptist, white, black -- it didn't matter. If the kids were athletic, could get some grades, and would commit to running their asses off, Rotsky would get them into Chanel. And if he could get them in, he knew they could win.

They did. They went 6-4 in his second season and 13-1 the next, beating Lake Catholic to win the league. In 2000, the Firebirds stormed through the state playoffs, losing in the championship game.

The transformation wasn't seamless. Wholesale change never is, particularly when Catholic tradition is turned upside down and when the change agent is a fire-spitting Jew from Gates Mills. From the moment Rotsky started winning, his coaches began hearing rumors: Rotsky had bought an apartment complex for players to live in and was paying them to transfer. It was bullshit, of course; likely the jealous spite of men tired of getting their asses kicked by The Guy Who Has Everything. But it didn't help.

Nor did the fact that Rotsky could talk just about anyone into going to Chanel. Though the school never acknowledged it, Rotsky says that Principal Roger Abood started to balk at the number of non-Catholics the coaches were recruiting. During the 2000 season, Rotsky says, Abood mandated a quota: 70 percent of the school needed to be Catholic.

It seems a reasonable request: to keep a Catholic school somewhat Catholic. But it didn't blend with Rotsky's dual missions of helping poor kids and winning championships. "How many black kids do you know who are Catholic?" he asks.

The friction lingered into the 2001 season -- the season sure to bring Chanel its first state title. Klir knew that Rotsky's relationship with Abood was deteriorating. But he didn't know how much. He certainly didn't know, that April day in the weight room when Rotsky said he would be back in 10 minutes, that Coach was on his way to get fired.

Rotsky cleaned out his things and left. It was too late to find a new job. So Perella, Rotsky's former coach, asked Rotsky if he wanted to assist him. Perella had just taken the head job at Case. Rotsky brought with him his staff from Chanel. Even Klir, the former Firebird, ditched his alma mater to stick with Rotsky.

Throughout that season, the coaches perused newspaper announcements to see which high school they would save next. Of course, they also perused the box scores and watched Chanel rattle off win after win. By season's end, Klir would find himself blinking tears onto the sports section, reading about his alma mater's undefeated season and first-ever state championship.

No, he didn't make it to the game.

"The way that they ended up treating [Rotsky] . . . I want nothing to do with that school."

Shawn Sailor wasn't thinking about football. It was the freshman's first week at Maple Heights; he had just moved to the suburb from Cleveland. Yeah, he'd played some sports. When you're six foot four, 250 pounds at age 14, kids on the playground want you on their team. But Shawn hadn't played a down of real football, and he didn't plan to start.

Then he went to the lunchroom. "You're going to play football for me," he suddenly heard a goofy white dude hollering. "No ifs, ands, or buts about it."

Of all the openings, it was Maple Heights that had caught Rotsky's eye. Sure, the program was in total chaos. But he knew the school would be loaded with athletes.

As soon as he arrived, Rotsky went to work recruiting. Only this time he had just one well to dip from: the lunchroom. He showed up on campus and threw himself in the face of anyone who looked as if they could play. You hear what we did at Chanel? We're gonna do that here. And you're going to help.

"He spit in all my food," Sailor recalls. He wanted to blow Rotsky off; he had his heart set on basketball. But when he got home, his dad gave him a message: The football coach called. He called my house?

Sailor's a senior tackle now, six foot seven and 300 pounds. He's being recruited by North Carolina, among other schools.

For the kids who grew up playing youth football in Maple, it was an even easier sell. So what if the Mustangs hadn't won a game in two years? Kids hear things. They heard about that crazy Chanel coach, the guy who stormed the sidelines, screaming and spitting like a cartoon drill sergeant. They heard how his workouts -- his year-round weightlifting and speed training, and his hellish summer camp -- had helped those Chanel boys burn up and down the field. They heard about Bam Childress, the kid from up the street who, under Rotsky, had won Ohio's Mr. Football and played for Ohio State. About all those other players he helped land scholarships.

So they showed up, did what they were told. And they won. Seven games that first year, despite playing all but one game on the road because of a teachers' strike. They beat Garfield Heights, their bitter rival, and clinched a division title. In one damn year, they turned a winless team into a playoff team.

The next year they rattled off even more wins. And when the city's budget went to hell and the school started talking about cutting sports, they showed up on every last doorstep in Maple, begging people -- often elderly white people whose kids were long gone -- to please pass the school levy. We need football, they pleaded. The thing passed by 147 votes.

Young boys in Maple -- boys who dreamed of playing football, but never imagined being winners -- suddenly had something to work for. Senior Mitchell Chavers was an eighth-grader during Rotsky's first year. He remembers standing on the field during the team's final game, that last-second win over Garfield. "You just saw that he had bonded with the team, and everybody trusted him."

Anthony Wright, the star quarterback, might have gone to Glenville, the Cleveland powerhouse known for getting kids into big colleges. Wright's dad is friendly with Glenville Coach Ted Ginn and says, "It wouldn't have been a problem to buy a house in Cleveland." With Rotsky in charge, there was no need.

Sure, the coach takes getting used to. He never stops moving -- he's always walking somewhere, arms swinging wildly like those of a boy just learning to march. And he's always yelling, in ways that leave other football coaches astounded. During the team's training camp at Case -- Rotsky used his connections to secure dorms and a field for a week -- he spent one morning peppering his players with remarkably loaded questions. "Do you know how much that kills us?" he screamed when his kicker missed a field goal. "Do you know how much that pisses me off?" he hollered when a player lined up incorrectly. "Do you know how much I get pissed off when you're talking?" he growled at a team meeting.

Over Rotsky's four-plus seasons at Maple, the older players have passed down a sort of mantra, something to repeat when Rotsky's mouth starts motoring. "Don't listen to how he says it," explains Charles Brown, a senior receiver. "Listen to what he says."

It's not a foolproof system, because when he works himself up, Rotsky has a penchant for hyperbole. "You've gotta be the dumbest human being I've ever seen in my life!" he shouted during one summer practice, after a ball carrier cut a play too far inside. As the players almost always do, the boy shrugged it off, taking in the message -- Run it wider! -- and not the insult. "At least they care about me enough to be yelling at me," Brown reasons.

The players are good at shrugging things off. They did the same thing on Labor Day, while watching tape of their rout of Bedford. Rotsky called their performance a "disgrace" and after one play hollered: "I swear to God! This is an abortion!"

The message: Yes, we won, 45-21. Nice work. But we'll get smoked if we play this way against Mentor.

"He's just crazy," Brown says, laughing. "When football practice starts, he's in his zone."

It helps that they win. After two straight seasons without a victory, Rotsky has taken the Mustangs to the playoffs four straight years. Last season they went 10-0, the school's first undefeated team in a half-century. This season, Maple Heights moved into the Lake Erie League's big-schools division. They entered this week 5-1, ranked ninth in The Plain Dealer's Top 25, a contender for a Division II state title.

And Maple Heights -- the school and the city -- is all about football again. In 2004, just two years after Rotsky took over, the Mustangs hosted St. Edward at their tiny home stadium, at a city park. The place was packed, standing room only, 6,000 strong. They had to turn 500 fans away.

"They've been used to us being a sorry bunch of nobodies," says cornerback Jesse Williams. Now, "People are actually talking in the streets."

"It helps you socially," Mitchell Chavers adds. He came to football by accident, a bookworm weighing 300 pounds as a five-foot-five freshman. Rotsky ran him to death, shaving off 70 pounds and dragging him out of his shell. "When they see you, they know you play for the Mustangs," he says of classmates. "You get a lot more attention."

It also helps when senior after senior goes off to college. Almost all the seniors Rotsky's coached at Maple have enrolled somewhere after graduation, many of them on scholarship. This year's team has several Division I prospects. "I don't care if you're the worst player on the team," Rotsky says. "I can find you a place to play college football."

Yet there are moments when you suspect that the Mustangs could go 5-5 and send all their seniors to Tri-C, and not one would give a damn. There are moments -- brief ones, before the screaming and running and sweating begin again -- when you sense that just being with Rotsky is worth all their trouble.

He might be threatening to spit water on them or swearing that he could kick their mammoth asses. He might be marching around their field like a madman, scream-singing how he likes piña coladas and getting caught in the rain. He might slap them, as hard as he can, in the helmet for no reason at all -- his little way of saying I love you. Or he might just come out and say it, which he does as often as he can get away with.

Or he might get that feeling, the one he usually gets after a big win, when the kids are gathered around him, a swarm of sweat and smiles. One of them will prompt him -- "I got that feeling, Coach!" -- and Rotsky will slowly start rocking back and forth, his face stoic in concentration. A few boys will give him a beat, and he'll spin his hat to the back and bust a rhyme.

"I got that feeling!"


"I'm feeling free!"


"I got that feeling!"


"Win number three!"

He'll continue like that, the kids breaking up with every hideous line. Then he'll stop -- and remind them they have practice at eight the next morning. They never seem to mind.

"Here we go!"

It's game day.

"Let's gooooo!"

First home game of the season.

"Go! Go! Goooooo!"

Jeff Rotsky is going crazy.

He isn't supposed to be. Tonight's game is against a team from Ontario. Rotsky's staff doesn't know a lick about them. But it's clear, even as they warm up, that Maple will embarrass the Canadians. Joe Klir wonders whether Rotsky will be his usual game-day self. "You might get the mellow version tonight," he says.

Rotsky is notoriously spastic on game days, and at first, he appears no different against the Canadians. While his team stretches, he moves from player to player, smacking their helmets, begging them to "get nasty" and "be electric," a wild look in his eyes. If he isn't talking directly to a player, he's just hollering, over and over again, some variation of his favorite word: "Go! Here we goooooo! Let's go! Go, go, go! Gooooo! Here we goooooo!"

In the locker room, which is actually a middle school cafeteria, he gives three Super Bowls' worth of speeches, invoking everything from God to family to college to a state championship to Invincible, that week's box-office hit, all at a pace and pitch that make it feel as if the room may soon blow up. He ends with a directive: "Send 'em back!" he screams, referring to his opponents' homeland. "Send 'em back in a nice way, but send 'em back! Shove it up their you-know-whats so far that they can't breathe. I want them begging!"

But there is something mellower about this game-day Rotsky. It came before the pregame speech. While his players were still stretching, Rotsky sneaked off for a moment, walking over to his bench, where students were passing out Mustang T-shirts to a group of senior citizens. "It's good to see you guys," he said brightly, shaking the seniors' hands. "Now we've got a shot, with you guys here."

Rotsky's players had bonded with the seniors weeks before, when, as part of Rotsky's mandatory community service, they cleaned up a local senior center. Tonight, he invited the seniors to serve as honorary captains, to make the human tunnel the Mustangs charged through to start the game.

Plenty of coaches talk about turning boys into men, but at many schools, it's just not part of the job description. Rotsky lives it. On game days, his players wear shirts and ties, making Friday afternoons at Maple look more like Sunday church. He requires them to study for 45 minutes before every practice, and gives them a strike -- less playing time -- if they don't have anything to work on. "He is developing a culture in the schools that has people believing it's cool to walk around with books," says Mayor Michael Ciaravino. "His number-one goal is to eliminate the selfishness. Imagine that being the threshold: having better than an undefeated season."

"It's like he's a partner," explains Jesse Williams, father of the Mustang cornerback. Williams' son was a terror growing up, he says, constantly fighting. When the boy headed to high school, Williams says, "I was paranoid. I knew I was gonna be up there all the time. With Rotsky being there, I haven't been up there on a disciplinarian call." Instead, all he hears is what a gentleman his son is. "Everybody's like, 'He's a great kid.' I'm like, 'What?'"

At this year's training camp, Rotsky developed "The Hot Seat," modeled after a SportsCenter feature. Rotsky knows many of his players live lives he knows nothing about. So he brought them onstage, in front of the whole team, and grilled them. Made them talk about themselves. One player discussed how before he played football, he was on the verge of selling drugs. Others spoke of broken homes, crime, and the like. "When you hear stories about what they go through," says Brown, "you wanna take 'em under your wing and be with them."

It doesn't stop on game night. After the Mustangs jump on the Canadians early, Rotsky alters his halftime speech. "Do not humiliate them," he hollers, in a tone that makes it sound as if his team is losing by 49 points, not winning. "Respect them. Five years ago, that's what this team was." He tells JV players to take pads from varsity guys and suit up. And he spends the second half trying not to score. He also tries desperately to get the ball to Arnold Taylor, a senior who rarely sees the field. Since Taylor plays receiver, and Rotsky refuses to throw the ball, the coaches teach the kid on the spot how to play running back. The night's climax comes when the Mustang backups slam the ball down to the goal line, providing Taylor with his first touchdown.

After the game, the Mustangs gather under a goal post, waiting for Rotsky's postgame speech. But the coach is walking toward the Canadians, who are kneeling near the far sideline.

"Don't get caught up in that," Rotsky tells them, gesturing to the scoreboard, which reads 59-0. "Forget that. The score doesn't mean anything. If you play hard every down, you guys are gonna be fine."

He goes on for a while, singling out individual players, before making his way back to his own team. The Canadians walk off the field, and the boys from Maple Heights politely applaud them, thanking them for coming so far only to get their asses politely kicked.

Finally, Rotsky addresses his own team. You did well, he says, played with humility. You don't even have to run, he says. Not tonight. Not until practice in the morning.

They rise, and a boy from somewhere in the mess of maroon bellows, "I got that feeling, Coach!" They gather tightly around him. Someone gives him a beat.

They worry sometimes, these boys. They worry that their coach will get tired of their ramshackle lockers and his tiny office, that he'll start to feel like saving some other school's football team. They know he gets offers from big, fancy high schools and even colleges. He says he wants to stay, that this is his life. But still . . .

Rotsky bounces side to side, the kids moving with him. "Your hat!" someone yells. It's still sitting on his head, still facing forward. He always turns it backward to rap.

"I'm not ready yet!" Rotsky fires back, and for a moment, he just bounces side to side, side to side, side to side, as if he has all the time in the world.

Like this story?
SCENE Supporters make it possible to tell the Cleveland stories you won’t find elsewhere.
Become a supporter today.
Scroll to read more Cleveland News articles


Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.