"If a picture paints a thousand words,
Then why can't I paint you?
The words will never show the you I've come to know. ..."
— David Gates
Family always came first for Paul Yerk.
The Lower Township resident was married to Sally for 42 years, a union that produced seven children, eight grandchildren and enough memories to fill the Atlantic Ocean.
Sports, specifically golf and football, were a close second.
Paul, who passed away at age 77 on Jan. 10 from COVID-19, coached both sports at Middle Township High School for over 35 years.
"I didn't mind golf so much," Sally said with a laugh. "That didn't require a lot of late-night film sessions and long practices. But football was the other woman in my life. I remember being asleep one night when he was coaching with (current Panthers head coach) Frank Riggitano and Paul started yelling, 'Riggs! Riggs!' in his sleep. I was just glad he didn't call out another woman's name."
He did have to take a break from coaching football for a few years, however.
Living in Lower Township and coaching and teaching at Middle meant being on both sides of one of the area's most intense high school rivalries. The two football teams meet during Thanksgiving in the annual Anchor Bowl.
All seven children are Lower Cape May Regional graduates. Oldest sons Dan (now 41) and Micah (35) both played football for the Caper Tigers.
"When Dan was a freshman and Paul was coaching at Middle, Middle beat Lower Cape May," Sally said. "When they got home from the game, Dan went straight up to his room. I told Paul he had to give up coaching against his children because I was not going to put up with another Thanksgiving like that."
Both sports were a part of Paul's life for his entire life.
He grew up playing golf and football outside Philadelphia in Royersford, Pennsylvania, for Spring-Ford Area High School. Upon graduating from Penn State University in 1969, he took a job teaching special education at Middle while also serving as the Panthers' varsity golf coach and assistant football coach.
"If a face could launch a thousand ships, then where am I to go?
There's no one home but you, you're all that's left me too. ..."
Paul coached the golf team for over 30 years, guiding it to Cape-Atlantic League championships in 1975 and 1985, respectively, and posting a 350-238 record that earned him induction into the New Jersey Scholastic Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2003.
He served as an assistant coach for the football program for nearly as long. He stepped away for a few years, but returned when Riggitano first took over as head coach in 1989.
"I was only 28 when I became head coach," Riggitano said. "I needed a mentor and I pleaded with Paul to coach with me. He had such a huge impact on my life as a coach, a teacher and a friend. He meant so much to so many people. We lost a great man. He loved his players and students and they loved him. His death has hit me very hard."
That impact was felt throughout the week, as word of his death spread among the Middle and Lower township communities. Facebook and other social media outlets were filled with glowing tributes. Mourners lined up on Washington Street in Cape May during his walk-through viewing at Spilker Funeral Home on Friday, Jan. 15, and watched the live-streamed funeral from St. Ann's Church in Wildwood on Saturday.
Riggitano was among those who attended the viewing. He fought back tears when he arrived to see orange-and-black momentos — Middle's school colors — in one section and a pile of cigars. Among Paul's favorite things was to sit on the front porch of his North Cape May home and enjoy a cigar.
"I took two cigars," Riggitano said. "I'm saving one for a very special occasion."
That could happen after the next Anchor Bowl.
Although he was a defensive coach, Paul couldn't resist offering advice to Riggitano whenever Middle had the football.
"It never failed that he would call over to me and insist that a (short) pass to the tight end was open," Riggitano said with a laugh. "He called it a 'Pop' pass. So the next pop pass to the tight end will be for him."
"If a man could be two places at one time, I'd be with you.
Tomorrow and today, beside you all the way. ..."
Paul's greatest accomplishment, however, was marrying Sally and raising their children.
They had their first date on Nov. 11, 1974, soon after Sally took a teaching job at Middle after graduating from Slippery Rock University. They celebrated that anniversary each year, along with the first time they said "I love you" to each other on May, 26, 1975.
After a year in Cape May County, Sally got homesick and returned to Pittsburgh. But they continued their courtship and were married on June 24, 1978.
On their wedding day, they danced to Bread's "If."
They listened to the song one more time on Jan. 10, holding hands while their eyes locked. Minutes later, Paul passed away, less than three weeks after testing positive for COVID-19.
"If the world should stop revolving, spinning slowly down to die,
I'd spend the end with you.
And when the world was through.
Then one by one the stars would all go out,
Then you and I would simply fly away."
“The final line of the song says, 'Then you and I would simply fly away,'" Sally said. "That's what happened. Right after the song ended, Paul flew away. It was a beautiful moment. It was just exactly like it should be.”
David Weinberg's columns can also be found on his Dave Weinberg Extra Points Facebook page and blog, as well as on 973ESPN.com. His podcast, Dave Weinberg's Tequila and Touchdowns, can be heard on Anchor, Facebook and Twitter. You can also hear him 5:10 p.m. every Tuesday at Newstalk 1400-AM WOND and WONDRadio.com on Off the Press with Scott Cronick and at 5:35 p.m. Wednesdays for his Beat the Degenerates appearance on Cronick's show. His Weinberg Wednesday segment airs at 6:15 p.m. weekly on 97.3-FM ESPN.