Former Penn Manor track and field coach Joe Herman can’t quite remember the exact year it happened. But it was sometime in the 1980s. The McCaskey boys had topped Penn Manor by 110 points in a dual meet, he said. After the meet, Gordie Kraft, then the McCaskey coach, learned one of his jumpers who’d competed in the meet was academically ineligible. Kraft reported it to the proper authorities, resulting in a McCaskey forfeit.
“I even said to Gordie, ‘The kid got second,’ ” Herman recalled. “ ‘You can give us the three points and you’ll still win the meet.’ ”
“He lost like 15 meets (as boys coach) in his coaching career,” said Gordie’s son, Doug Kraft. “One of them was that forfeit. He took the L. I think that speaks to the kind of person he was.”
Gordie Kraft died March 4, just two weeks after being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, and just three months after the death of his wife, Y’vonne, to whom he was married for 62 years. He was 82.
It’s a monumental loss to the McCaskey and Lancaster-Lebanon League track and field communities.
An athlete through and through
A 1958 graduate of McCaskey, Kraft played football and was on the swimming and track teams. He was a center and linebacker on the 1957 McCaskey football team that won the Central Penn football championship. He won a gold medal by swimming a leg of the 200 freestyle relay team that won the state championship in 1958.
He was a three-sport student-athlete at Franklin & Marshall College, where as a senior he was captain of the football and track teams, and named the Senior Athlete of the Year in 1962.
Kraft began teaching and coaching McCaskey in 1962, and continued in both positions until he retired in 1997. He was the head boys track and field coach for 28 seasons, the head girls track coach for 17 seasons and the head swimming coach for three seasons. He was an assistant football coach for almost all of his 35 seasons.
As the boys track coach, Kraft compiled a record of 272-14, including 63 straight dual meet wins from 1980-86. His boys teams won 19 Lancaster-Lebanon League section titles, 20 league championships and 11 District Three crowns. His boys teams had 19 undefeated seasons and finished second at the state championships five times.
On the girls side, Kraft compiled a record of 104-68 as head coach from 1981 to 1997, winning two state titles and four District Three crowns.
Kraft has been inducted into the McCaskey Athletic Hall of Fame, the Susquehanna Chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame and the L-L Hall of Fame.
Revered by colleagues
Another notable feat: The staff of his assistant coaches on the track team remained mostly the same during Kraft’s entire tenure. Among them was longtime assistant and best friend Bernie Santaniello. Kraft and Santaniello met in fourth grade.
“He did let us coach,” Santaniello said. “The only thing he asked of us is to keep up on the latest workout techniques. And if we could somehow find out what the Olympians were doing in each of the events we coached.”
Speaking of Olympians, Kraft was also close to the late Barney Ewell, the McCaskey sprinter who won a gold medal and two silvers at the 1948 Olympic Games. Ewell died in 1996.
“Barney used to come by practices,” Doug Kraft said. “Dad made sure his athletes got to meet Barney Ewell. … My dad would’ve been first to tell you the Lancaster McCaskey track and field tradition definitely starts with Barney Ewell.”
Statue of Barney Ewell dedicated in Lancaster City plaza [photos]
Henry Norwood “Barney” Ewell was, at one time, known as the “world’s fastest human.”
The Olympic gold medalist was also known as a friendly, humble man who served as mentor to many young people in Lancaster.
Younger generations will remember Ewell when they visit Barney Ewell Plaza in the 100 block of North Queen Street, Lancaster, where a bronze statue of the Olympic gold medal sprinter was dedicated Saturday.
The newly erected statue of Ewell in a running stance, created by sculptor Chad Fisher of York County, was the focus of an event that included remarks from Gov. Tom Wolf, live music, performances by McCaskey students and a “mini-Olympics” of games for kids that was hosted by the Lancaster Recreation Commission.
Local dignitaries and Ewell's family members, friends and admirers gathered in the plaza, formerly Lancaster Square, and renamed in Ewell's honor, to pay tribute to the J.P. McCaskey alumnus who brought home a gold and two silver medals in track and field from the 1948 Olympics in London.
The event was organized by the Barney Ewell Legacy Committee.
Among Ewell’s many accomplishments as a sprinter and long jumper, he held or shared world records in the 50-, 60- and 220-yard dashes and the 100- and 200-meter runs. He won 12 NCAA titles as a student at Penn State University, 16 gold medals in world-class outdoor meets and 11 national AAU titles.
Ewell died in Lancaster in 1996 at age 78.
Gordie Kraft had a way of getting the most out of his student-athletes. Among them was Tony Woods, a McCaskey Athletics Hall of Famer who played football for the Red Tornado and Bloomsburg, where he became an All-American and was a Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference champion runner in the 100-meter dash. Woods nearly played professional football with the Houston Oilers in 1986.
“If (Kraft) saw some talent and saw you could go to college, he encouraged you, and that was the big thing,” Woods said. “In the Seventh Ward, where I grew up, you didn’t get that. That was the biggest thing from Gordie. He cared about his players. … When I came back to coach with him, he was putting the time in and he still had the passion. He didn’t pull punches.”
And he didn’t hold back on doling out discipline in hopes of improving his football players, sometimes sending those on varsity down to the junior varsity to straighten them out.
“I was a fullback,” Woods said. “If we didn’t block well, we had to do the blocking sled the linemen were on. As running backs, that wasn’t fun.”
Kraft was the interim head football coach for four games at the end of 1975, after George Burke was fired six games into the season. Kraft could’ve stayed on as head coach but turned it down, instead sticking to his longtime role as the defensive coordinator.
“Track and field was his first love,” son Zac Kraft said. “He didn’t want to give up track. He didn’t think he could be a head coach of both (football and track).”
It led to McCaskey’s next football coach being Norbie Danz, who went on to become a Pennsylvania Football Coaches Association Hall of Famer. Danz died in 2021. But in 1999 he was quoted as saying of Kraft: “He was very loyal, and a good coach. He probably could’ve had the head football job any time it was open.”
Danz made those comments in reaction to Kraft receiving the 1999 George W. Kirchner Award, an annual award handed out at the Lancaster County Sports Hall of Fame banquet, given to someone who has distinguished himself or herself by achievements in athletics in Lancaster County.
Sports runs in the family
One of seven children of Millersville University Athletics Hall of Famer Ed Kraft, Gordie Kraft had three children of his own who all went on to become successful student-athletes at Conestoga Valley. In addition to his two sons was daughter Heidi Kraft.
Dad, however, was mostly hands-off when it came to coaching his own kids.
“They had Saturday track practices at McCaskey,” Heidi Kraft, once a shot-putter, recalled. “I would go over. But Bernie was the field coach. I mostly interacted with him. Dad might talk to me for five or 10 minutes about tweaking my throwing form or whatever and I would immediately throw inches further.”
What’s more, Dad rarely brought his wins and losses home with him.
“In times of losses, he was always reflective,” Heidi Kraft said. “You look at what happened and what could you do to make it better? He was a graceful loser.”
“He taught the athletes how to be good people,” Zac Kraft said. “I thank my dad for that. He has passed that on to me and my brother and sister.”
Additionally, the three Kraft children benefited from having a built-in math tutor — Gordie Kraft worked as a math teacher at McCaskey.
“You could tell he was a math teacher because everything had to add up to something,” Doug Kraft said. “Evan family picnics he would take orders and he would have a graph of who ordered what.”
Active in retirement
After his retirement, Kraft stepped back from the track and field program but answered every phone call from a longtime assistant who replaced him as head coach: Carl Frederick.
“Those first years I was head coach I was calling him (Kraft) two or three times a week,” Frederick said. “I was calling him about everything. How many uniforms do you order? As far as hurdles, what drills did you do? He gave me all the time I needed.”
During the warm months during the last quarter century or so, Kraft often went fishing once a week with two familiar faces. One was Herman, the former Penn Manor track coach who also played football for McCaskey when Kraft was just starting out in coaching. The other was Santaniello, Kraft’s longtime assistant. The trio’s favorite fishing hole was on the Susquehanna River by Safe Harbor.
“He mentioned different state championship teams he had,” Herman said. “He would be talking about the current kids, too.”
Kraft still attended McCaskey home meets as a spectator. Frederick joined him after retiring as McCaskey coach in 2016. The two usually watched near the throwing area.
“Even though he was retired, he still had that running through his veins,” Jill Cypress said.
Cypress is a McCaskey Athletics Hall of Famer stemming from her days as a standout runner and jumper for Kraft’s Red Tornado teams. She’s now a longtime McCaskey assistant coach.
“I always loved to see him and Freddy (Carl Frederick) come to the meets,” Cypress said. “The support was always there.”
But being a spectator couldn’t hold Kraft back from the track.
“Whenever it was time for the 300 hurdles,” Herman said. “Gordie was out there helping to put up the hurdles.”
‘A winning attitude’
In his final days, Kraft got a phone call from Doug Dennison, the McCaskey grad and former standout football running back at Kutztown who rushed for more than 1,000 yards in 52 games for the Dallas Cowboys, winning Super Bowl XII in 1978.
“(Kraft) knew I came with abilities,” Dennison said. “He helped to shape it to get the most out of it.”
Dennison played football and ran track for Kraft at McCaskey.
“The greatest thing he had done for Doug Dennison was when I was undefeated in my senior season,” Dennison recalled. “I had a meet not going too well at Central Dauphin. It had started to rain. I was losing the long jump. I had two jumps left. The other coaches said, ‘We got this wrapped up, let’s go.’ ”
Dennison agreed with them. Kraft did not.
“I was ready to take one for the team,” Dennison said. “And Coach Kraft said, ‘No, you’re undefeated.’ ”
Dennison remained unbeaten in the long jump that day.
“I remembered that when I got to Cowboys training camp,” Dennison said. “That stayed with me. That’s Gordie Kraft. A winning attitude. A positive work ethic.”
The Kraft family said a celebration of life will be held the afternoon of April 15, although further details are still being finalized.