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A Proud Marine

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A proud Marine
By Michael Eisen, Giants.com

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JULY 27, 2009

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Thirty-seven years ago, Mike Waufle made a life-altering decision by forsaking a post-high school football career to join the Marine Corps. Three years later, impelled in part by the relocation of his new wife’s parents, Waufle’s journey took another detour when he got back into the game. Both times, he made the absolute correct choice. All these years later, his family, the Corps and the game he loves remain central themes in his life.

Mike Waufle received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 47th Annual Leatherneck Ball

Waufle has recently reaped tangible benefits from those long-ago decisions. Now entering his seventh season as the Giants’ defensive line coach, Waufle earned his first championship ring when the Giants defeated the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. This year, Waufle received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 47th Annual Leatherneck Ball, the oldest and one of the largest fundraisers for the Marine Corps Scholarship Fund.

Among those attending the black tie dinner in Manhattan was James T. Conway, the Commandant of the Marine Corps. Former President Bill Clinton mingled with the crowd and spoke to the honorees at a pre-dinner reception. Waufle gave a humorous, poignant and inspiring speech upon accepting the award.

“I was humbled,” Waufle said. “To ever think that I would be sitting at the same table as the Commandant of the Marine Corps. I stood in the barracks in Parris Island and never in my wildest dreams did I think that could happen. To have an opportunity to meet Bill Clinton, I just thought that was tremendous. That was a great opportunity. I think just supporting the cause and raising money for the scholarship, that’s what it was all about. I thought that was great.”

Waufle would not have been in a position to be so honored had he followed his original career path almost four decades ago. He was a star linebacker and running back as a senior at Hornell High School in Upstate New York. But he was not as accomplished in the classroom as he was on the football field. So Waufle’s intention was to head for Nassau Community College on Long Island in the fall of 1972. But his coach, Tony Bottone, suggested he first take a detour.

“He advised me to go into the Marines and get my life back in order and then come out of the Marine Corps for junior college,” Waufle said.

Bottone’s advice was not meant to suggest that Waufle was a troublemaker or a bad kid.

“I was very defiant by nature,” Waufle said. “I didn’t do well academically, but was very capable. That’s the only thing that set me back. I was highly-recruited out of high school, but the grades set me back.”

Waufle thought joining the Marines might be just what he needed.

“I kind of had it in the back of my mind anyway, because I was always intrigued by it,” he said. “I thought it was great. I was excited about it.”

So Waufle headed off to Parris Island, the famous - or infamous – training ground for Marine recruits. Parris Island is not for the feint of heart.

“It was frightening when I first got there,” Waufle said. “Intimidating. Challenging. Molding. And it was hot. The best way to describe it is brainwashing, because it gave you such a passion and love for the Marines that you felt like you’d accomplished something.

“I never questioned it my decision. Once I entered and knew that I was going to do it, I just wanted to make sure I finished. I could say I had a strong structure of discipline. That was the biggest change. There was no procrastination in my system anymore.”

From Parris Island, Waufle went to military police school at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. Once there, he could see the rest of his life stretched our before him.

“I was in the military police and I was going to come back to New York to be a state trooper,” Waufle said. “That was hands down what I was going to do.”

But another life-changing decision sent him on a different path. Right after boot camp Waufle had married Kathy, “a farmer’s daughter from about 10 miles away (from Hornell).” They met at a high school dance and dated for three years before marrying. Soon after the wedding, Kathy’s parents moved and, with them, so did Waufle’s plans.

“When my in-laws moved out to California, I decided to go to junior college out there just to try football one more time,” Waufle said. “From there, that’s the end of the story.”

It was in the sense that since Waufle returned to football, he has never left the game. But in reality, the story was just beginning. His Bakersfield Junior College team won the junior college national title and played in the Junior Rose Bowl in 1976. Waufle then enrolled at Utah State, where he played on the defensive line and was a team captain as a senior.

When his playing career ended, Waufle knew he wanted to stay in the game. So he returned to New York and began his coaching career as the defensive line coach at Alfred University in 1979. From 1980-84, he was an assistant at Utah State. From 1985-88, Waufle was the defensive line coach and worked with the special teams at Fresno State. He was the defensive line coach at UCLA (1989), Oregon State (1990-91) and California (1992-97), where he helped develop several NFL defensive linemen, including two first-round selections in the 1996 draft, Duane Clemons and Regan Upshaw.

Waufle entered the NFL in 1998 as the defensive line coach of the Oakland Raiders. He stayed through the 2003 season and in those six years the Raiders made the playoffs three times, winning at least one postseason game in each of those seasons and advancing to Super Bowl XXXVII following the 2002 season

Tom Coughlin brought Waufle to the Giants in 2004 and he has since enhanced his reputation as one of the league’s best line coaches.

In Waufle’s first five years with the team, three different Giants defensive linemen were selected to the Pro Bowl: Michael Strahan in 2005, Osi Umenyiora in 2005 and 2007 and Justin Tuck in 2008. In addition, linemen such as Fred Robbins, Barry Cofield, Mathias Kiwanuka, Jay Alford and Dave Tollefson have played well under Waufle’s direction.

With Waufle’s defensive linemen leading the way, the Giants had 95 combined sacks the previous two seasons, the second-highest total in the NFL. In 2007, the Giants led the NFL with 53 sacks, their highest total since they had a league-high 54 in 1998. That included a record-setting 12.0 sacks vs. Philadelphia on Sept. 30. Strahan, Tuck and Alford all had big sacks in the Super Bowl XLII victory over New England.

Last year, Tuck led the team with 12.0 sacks and the defensive line with 71 tackles and was voted to his first Pro Bowl, and Kiwaunka added a career-high 8.0 sacks. The previous season, Umenyiora had a team-high 13.0 sacks, which left him third in the NFC and fifth in the NFL. It was the fourth consecutive season he had sole possession of the team’s sack leadership. Tuck had 10.0 sacks and Strahan 9.0.

Strahan retired following the 2007 season with 141.5 sacks, the NFL’s fifth-highest total since sacks became an official statistic in 1982.

The tackles have also excelled under Waufle’s tutelage. Robbins and Cofield were both strong run defenders. Robbins had 5.5 sacks for the third consecutive season and Cofield led the Giants’ interior linemen with 56 tackles.

In 2006, rookies Kiwanuka and Cofield thrived under Waufle. Kiwanuka, the team’s first-round draft choice, played in every game and had four sacks and two interceptions. Cofield arrived as an unheralded fourth-round choice, started every game at nose tackle and was selected as the nose tackle on the Pro Football Weekly/Pro Football Writers of America first All-Rookie team. He was first Giants rookie defensive player to start every game since Lawrence Taylor and defensive lineman Bill Neill in 1981 and was one of 13 rookies to start each of his team’s games in 2006.

In addition to teaching his players proper techniques and how to attack opposing linemen, Waufle imparts life lessons. He tells the linemen he is responsible, but they are accountable. Waufle reads at least a book a month, even when he is working 12 hours or more a day during football season. He wants his players to be good citizens as well as productive players.

“He is one of the best people I’ve ever met in my life,” said Umenyiora, who attended the Leatherneck Ball with Chris Canty, a lineman who joined the Giants as a free agent in March. “He’s like a father figure to me. He taught me a lot of things about the game. He’s teaching me a lot about life as we go along. I can’t say enough about the guy. We just love him.”

Although he’s traveled great distances geographically and symbolically since his youth, Waufle still grips his roots. He was inducted into Hornell High School’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1994. Last year, he was the Grand Marshall in Hornell’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

The Marines still course though Waufle’s veins. Military.com is a favorite website on his computer and he checks it daily for news on the Corps. He still talks regularly with three of his closest friends from boot camp. “One lives in Virginia, one lives in Alabama and one lives in Georgia - all southern,” Waufle said. And he is always eager to speak with fellow Marines, whether they are from his generation or are currently serving.

“Any time you run into a fellow Marine, it’s like the brotherhood of men,” Waufle said. “There’s a fellowship there. There’s the term ‘Semper Fidelis,’ which means ‘always faithful.’ You sacrifice so much and so much is demanded of you as you enter the Marine Corps. When you finish, that’s when you know you’ve accomplished something that’s great.”

Because of his affinity for the Corps, Waufle was emotional when he received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Leatherneck Ball. At the dinner, he was joined by Kathy and their daughters, Michele and Marsha and their husbands, and he sat at a table with General Conway, which was a singular thrill for Waufle.

“He meets with President Obama every Monday, so that’s how important he is to the security of our nation,” Waufle said. “I have all the respect in the world for him. He led the Iraqi invasion back in 2002, all the way from the border to Baghdad. It’s impressive.”

After the other honorees received their awards at the dinner, Waufle – a striking figure in a black tuxedo and bright red tie, with his Super Bowl XLII ring on his right hand – approached a podium set up in the middle of the dance floor in a ballroom at the New York Hilton. Although he prepared diligently, Waufle carried no notes as he addressed the crowd.

“I’ve done an awful lot of public speaking through the years,” Waufle said. “Through training and repetitions, I can do things without cards. The message I wanted to send was to honor the recipient of the scholarship (Kryslyn Kae Lotspeich, a student at Hofstra University), honor my family, honor Mr. (John) Mara and thank him for (purchasing) the table at the dinner, honor the coaches and the players. I did mention Coach (Tom) Coughlin twice in the speech to show his presence and where he’s been an influence on me and how he’s structured to the core.”

Waufle didn’t simply stand behind the podium and deliver his remarks in a monotone. He strode back and forth, raising and lowering his voice like a coach firing up his team in a pregame speech. After introducing his family, Waufle directed comments about the defensive line to Gen. Conway.

“I have good news and bad news,” Waufle said. “The good news is they would be your most elite recon unit that you have in the United States Marine Corps. The bad news is they’re big targets. In my office I have a Muhammad Ali picture. I have Muhammad Ali trunks. I walked by that for years and said I want to be a champion like Muhammad Ali. Now I am a champion like Muhammad Ali. You know what I told the defensive line? Do you want to know why Muhammad Ali was a champion? It’s because he won more than one world championship. The Giants have won world championships, but it was before we got there. So they have three world championships. Why don’t we win more world championships like my favorite team, the New York Yankees, who won 26 world championships?

“The best team, I think, that there is in the world, the greatest world champion, is the United States Marine Corps. Nobody in the world really wants to mess with the Marine Corps. Think about the battles. Fellowwood, Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Chosen Reservoir, Khe Sanh, Nazarene, Iraq - try playing that schedule for once. It’d scare the heck out of you.”

Waufle then turned to one of his favorite themes, leadership.

“When I was promoted to corporal I bought a handbook of the non-commissioned officer. That handbook is in my office today because of chapter 13. Not because I went bankrupt. Chapter 13 is on leadership. It’s the greatest chapter of that book. I read it when I was 19 years old when I first became corporal. To this day, I still follow it. It talks about discipline. Discipline in the United States Marine Corps is the difference between life and death. I tell the defensive line discipline in the National Football League is the difference between victory and defeat. Coach Tom Coughlin is a very disciplined head coach. He lives by structure. We won a world championship. Discipline in business and in life is the difference between success and failure. It all carries over.

“Taking care of your men is just simple. Get to know them. You Marines out there, take care of your men that are in leadership roles. Get to know them personally. It means a lot when you get to know them. Know your stuff. I had a professor who taught me that if you want to be the best, you go to the best and find out how they do it. That’s how I always researched. Coach Coughlin makes us study the best so that we can be the best.”

Waufle’s rousing speech also included references to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Rudy Giuliani and Billy Graham. But the highlight was his melodic conclusion, when he sang a song he learned from his drill instructors in boot camp.

“The first university I attended had a tremendous fight song,” Waufle said. “It’s called The University of Parris Island. I want to sing it to you. I want your buttons to pop off your chest. I don’t have a good voice; it’s not American Idol.”

But it was still highly entertaining.

“You can have your Army khaki. You can have your Navy blue. Here’s a new breed of fighting man, I’ll introduce to you. His uniform is different, the finest you’ve ever seen. The Germans called him devil dog. His title is Marine. He was born at Parris Island, the land that God forgotten. The sand is 14 inches deep. The sun is blazing hot. He wakes up every morning before the rising sun. He runs three miles or more before the day is done. He is a rifle expert. He knows his weapon well. When he’s shot his enemy, you always know he fell. When I go to heaven, Saint Peter I will tell, another Marine reporting, sir. I’ve served my time in hell.”

That song prompted a standing ovation and loud cheering from the crowd, including Gen. Conway.

“For all of you out there, I thank you very much for this evening,” Waufle said. “I want to thank every one of you out there that have served this country so that we can live here in freedom and the sacrifices that you made and how you put yourself on the line. I want to salute you.”

For one night, the Marine Corps saluted one of its own, Mike Waufle, whose decision to join the Corps almost 40 years ago helps define him to this day.

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