YOUGSTOWN, Ohio — Winning games is the essential key for any football team. Winning games brings money. Winning games made Jim Tressel a legend at Youngstown State University.
It’s the only thing that matters. It’s everybody’s goal.
For YSU head coach Eric Wolford, his goal was set in early 2008 when his 2-year-old son, Stone, was diagnosed with Cardio-Facio-Cutaneous Syndrome (CFC Syndrome), a rare genetic syndrome that typically affects the heart and skin.
According to CFC International, an estimated 200 to 300 people suffer from the disorder worldwide and children live an average between 4 and 14 years.
There is no cure. Wolford knows his time with Stone is limited.
“My goal for being a head coach has always been to be able to hire my son as an assistant equipment guy so he can be by my side because my son will never play football,” Wolford said. “I’ll just be glad to see him have the opportunity to make it that far being in the equipment room.”
A firebrand on the sideline, Wolford exhibits a rare inkling of emotion while talking about his son.
“That’s been my whole motive for wanting to be a head coach,” he said. “I don’t get too many days with him, and his days are numbered.”
Wolford’s wife, Melinda, said receiving Stone’s prognosis over the phone was one of the most difficult times in her life. Melinda Wolford was eight months pregnant with their daughter, Marlee, at the time.
But what some would look at as a disappointment helped Eric Wolford evolve into the man he is as a coach, father and husband.
“I’ve seen him mature from a hard-nose scrapper as a college football player to a great guy that presents his program in the right way,” Mark Mangino said, YSU’s assistant head coach and former assistant coach at Kansas State University.
Eric Wolford, the sixth head coach in YSU history, took over the reigns on Dec. 15, 2009, replacing Jon Heacock. Eric Wolford fit the criteria that the Penguins were searching for.
“I thought it was important for us to bring in someone who was going to bring a lot of energy back in the program,” Ron Strollo said, YSU’s Executive Director of Intercollegiate Athletics.
Another element was Eric Wolford’s local connection. He grew up in Brookfield, OH, and is a 1989 graduate of Ursuline High School in Youngstown. He was an offensive lineman there and later with Kansas State. Current University of Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, another Youngstown native, recruited the guard.
After his collegiate days ended, Eric Wolford worked out for the Arizona Cardinals but never made the roster.
“It was a good experience for me,” he said. “I got a little frustrated because I felt like I was maybe good enough. I wasn’t drafted, so they didn’t have any money invested in me. Probably could have stuck it out a little bit and maybe try to work out for a couple other teams, but coach [Bill] Snyder asked me to come back and help him out there.”
He became a student assistant at KSU, which he said was the right choice.
After spending 1994 with the Wildcats, Eric Wolford coached at Emporia State University (1995), the University of South Florida (1996-99), the University of Houston (2000-02), the University of North Texas (2003), the University of Arizona (2004-06), the University of Illinois (2007-08) and the University of South Carolina (2009) before returning home.
He went 16-17 in his YSU career up until the 2013 season. The Penguins have missed the playoffs by one win in both of the previous two seasons.
Besides being a head coach for his Penguins, Eric Wolford also leads another program with who he said is the best recruit he’s ever had in his life, Melinda.
They started the No Stone Unturned Foundation in October 2008 while Eric Wolford coached at Illinois. It is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the support and research of children with health initiatives and/or disabilities and their families.
“What really spiked the starting of the foundation was Stone needed a helmet for his head because of his odd-shaped head,” Eric Wolford said. “It wasn’t within one millimeter that it needed to be in. It upset me enough to tell my wife that this is the reason why we need to start a foundation to help other families with kids with disabilities.”
All of the hard work, everything Eric Wolford transformed into revolves around his son. Stone gave his father the motivation in becoming a head coach. Stone helped make his parents’ marriage stronger, similar to Eric Wolford making YSU stronger.
“Stone is just like his dad,” Mangino said. “He just tries to get better and improve and just climb that ladder all the time. He’s just a great inspiration to us all, and I’m just inspired by him.”
Not only the coaches, but Stone also inspires the players. Senior quarterback Kurt Hess, who has started every game at the position since Eric Wolford’s first season, embraces every opportunity he can.
“Stone is always a joy to be around,” Hess said. “He brightens everyone’s day. He’s so happy and just content all the time. It’s really rewarding to see how coach Wolf and Stone interact because you can see his unconditional love for his son. It’s similar to the love he gives us players.”
Even with all the heartache they endured watching their son struggle, the Wolford’s realized they need their son in their lives to keep them grounded. Stone Wolford opened the door, and his parents followed. Eric and Melinda were chosen to raise their precious Stone.
“We can both be as successful as we are because he is our motivator,” Melinda said. “He reminds us everyday what life is really about. It’s about caring for each other and taking care of those around you that need you and making a difference. We’re in a great place making a difference.”
That place is Youngstown, OH, making a difference on and off the gridiron since Dec. 15, 2009.
“It was an awesome decision for our family,” Melinda Wolford said. “I’ve never been happier. I think it’s sort of a miracle that we get to be in his hometown and coach, and I know he’s going to win. We’re going to win here.
“Out of all the moves we made, this is the best one. We do feel like this is where we’re supposed to be.”
Watch video of Coach Wolford and Stone here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xyjc9PsWd0U