Mr. Prorok had a huge impact on many of the athletes that went through the Round Lake Area School District in Lake County, Illinois. What might be lesser known is the impact Mr. Prorok had even on non-athletes. He certainly had a significant effect on my development even though I was not an athlete. He noticed little things that we non-athletes did right and acknowledged them. That recognition had a huge impact on our self-confidence.
One time we were playing soccer in PE. Now, it had just so happened that I had recently watched some soccer on TV for probably the only time in my life. I had seen a player steal a ball from an opponent by sliding in toward the dribbler like he was sliding into second base and tapping the ball to a teammate on the other side.
On this day, Jim Strom dribbled the ball toward me thinking I would be no challenge to get around. That was a safe assumption. I had never been an athlete, never been particularly fast, quick, or agile. But in this case, I saw that I had a teammate on the other side of Jim. I remembered what I had seen on TV. I slid into Jim as if he was second base, aiming for the ball…and tapped it over to my teammate. Jim easily jumped over me, then turned and pointed at me and started laughing because I had fallen down.
Mr. Prorok had been standing nearby and had seen the entire play. He said to Jim, “What are you laughing at him for? He just stole the ball from you!” as my teammate took the ball back towards Jim’s goal.
To have successfully completed my play felt good in itself. In the words of the A-Team leader, Hannibal Smith, “I love it when a plan comes together!” Having my effort recognized by Mr. Prorok when I had never had any particular success in athletics was special.
But the best thing Mr. Prorok ever did was the Eskimo Unit.
Our PE year was divided into four quarters. Every quarter, we were given several electives to choose from to maintain maximum student interest and involvement. Typical winter electives were basketball and weight training. One year Mr. Prorok wanted to see what interest the kids had in going outside to play football or speedball even in the snowy cold and created The Eskimo Unit. I don’t know if Mr. Prorok designed it this way or not, but the jocks would mostly sign up for basketball or weight training. This meant that us non-jocks could have an opportunity to actually get our hands on the ball!
The Eskimo Unit provided the most gym class fun ever! We would suit up with sweats over our gym suits and head outside for the snow. It didn’t even matter if the snow was still coming down or not…we went outside in it! Even when the temperatures dropped below freezing, we would go out for 40 minutes, anyway, and throw the ball around, run around, and make some contact. Everybody else thought we were nuts, but we reveled in our ruggedness. The harsh conditions helped to keep the class on the small side. We always had enough people to field two teams, but there were never so many people that anybody was left out of the action. And that made all the difference.
Once when I was on Mr. Prorok’s football team, he actually threw me a short pass over the middle that I had to jump up to catch. For starters, I could not believe somebody was throwing me the ball! And as I was going up for the ball, I saw George Most bearing down on me like a freight train. I caught the ball and braced for impact. I came down, got hit…and held onto the ball! I think that was the first time I had ever experienced that sort of rush.
Another time Bud McConnell caught a medium pass from Mr. Prorok down the right side. Bud was another athletic underachiever, just like me. He caught the ball and started running like mad down the right sideline. Go, Bud! I turned back to the scrimmage line and saw Reuben Lopez coming across for Bud. Reuben was one of the few seriously athletic types who joined us out on the snowy fields every day. He was on the football team and practiced martial arts. He was one solid dude!
The only thing I could see that stood between Reuben and Bud was me. I crossed my arms in front of myself and clutched my elbows to avoid a holding call and threw myself in front of him.
Reuben crashed into me and blew me back. Both of us looked shocked when I stayed on my feet! Reuben took off again, trying to get around me to Ball Carrier Bud, who was pumping like mad for the end zone. I threw myself in front of Reuben again. Reuben blew me back again. I stayed on my feet! Again!
By this time Bud was just about into the end zone. Reuben just called it quits.
There was quite a celebration around Bud. Under normal circumstances, guys like Bud and I never got the chance to have that kind of victory celebration in the end zone. Never. Except during Mr. Prorok’s Eskimo Unit. Everybody cheered for Bud, and Bud basked in every minute of being the hero of the moment.
Then Mr. Prorok said, “Did you see Parker’s block? That saved the touchdown!” Bud and I got to do a little duet victory dance in the end zone.
I believe that Mr. Prorok’s Eskimo Unit had a significant impact later in my life. Five years after high school I applied for the Backcountry Trail Crew program with the California Conservation Corps (CCC). That job involved living in primitive camps in remote areas of some of the USA’s most beautiful National Parks and Forests for an entire summer. The work is hard. Most of the trail construction uses dry rock masonry techniques that have been in use since the Egyptians built the Pyramids. The most common building material is the native granite lying around all over the place in the high country. Granite weighs 150 pounds per cubic foot. Trail crews move a lot of big rocks. The living conditions can be harsh as well. Some work camps are as high as 10,000 feet. It gets cold at 10,000 feet in September! Early and late season snow is common. Crews work in the rain and wind. The only ‘civilized’ shelter is at most a tent.
One of the questions asked in the interview was about the harshest conditions I had ever experienced. The interviewer was impressed with my Eskimo Unit experience. She said most applicants to the program only have limited experience in snow. Not only did I grow up in Lake County snow, but I did everything I could to be outside in it! I have to think that my Eskimo Unit experience was a contributing factor to my selection to a Yosemite Backcountry Trail Crew.
Even though I had been selected to a crew, I still wasn’t really seen as an athletic-type, and there were those who didn’t think I would make it through the season. One jock-type guy who had applied for the program but was only chosen as an alternate was seriously offended that I had been chosen ahead of him. He told anybody who would listen, “I’m not worried about being an alternate. Someone will drop out quick and then I’ll get his spot. You don’t think Parker’s gonna last two weeks, do you?”
Not only did I make it two weeks, I worked two complete seasons on Backcountry trail crews. The first was the season in Yosemite with the CCC. Two summers later, I worked one season in King’s Canyon National Park for the National Park Service. Those experiences provided the foundation for an entire twenty-eight year (and counting) career in Natural Resources Conservation in California. The confidence building that was an essential tool in this career began over thirty years ago in Mr. Prorok’s Eskimo Unit.