By halftime, it was pitch black and the thermometer read in the single digits. The wind whipping off the nearby Hudson kept blowing out of the sideline heaters, making it feel even colder. Now, a year later, the legendary temperature drops in every retelling of the story.
Army plays its sprint football games in an auxiliary field outside of the main football stadium. The field is on riverside property, and the tiny bleachers do little to discourage the freezing winds coming off the water. There is no visitors’ locker room. Instead, the Black Knights give opponents a maintenance shed, having evicted the resident equipment and stacked it on the lawn outside.
With Penn down two scores in the championship game in the cold, everyone was in the shed, laser-focused on the game. Everyone that is, except for Pat Dolan, sprint football’s strength and conditioning coach. He had important business to attend to.
“Everyone was sitting inside because it was so goddamn freezing out — what better time to go outside and make a call? Nobody was going to try to follow me because no one was going to go out there, it was so cold,” Pat said.
“I called up her dad and he seemed pleasantly surprised. He was like ‘Oh of course, yeah!’ I told him what I was planning on doing; I was going to propose during Thanksgiving dinner in like a simple, classy way.”
Back in the shed, his then-girlfriend, athletic trainer Jess Turak, had no idea.
Penn Athletics made Jess a full-time athletic trainer in the summer of 2011 — about two years before Pat was hired. Soon after Pat came to Penn as a weight room intern, the strength and conditioning staff quickly realized they needed his help more than they had thought and hired him to his current part-time position.
The two met, of course, in the weight room, where Pat walked in on a conversation regarding humanity’s place in the universe and was so taken aback that Jess took him to be “just another dumb jock.”
The turning point in their relationship also came at work. Because they work under the Sports Performance subdivision of Penn Athletics, both are required to have CPR/AED certifications. Pat’s had expired, and Jess was in charge of training the rest of the staff.
After emailing back and forth a few times — “It was a busy semester!” Jess protests — Pat finally made it down to the training room to do the CPR instruction. Instead of the half-bored bureaucratic experience he had been exposed to in the past, Pat got hands-on intensive instruction.
“I thought she wanted me to do like a shadow Heimlich maneuver sort of thing,” he said.
He was wrong.
“When I teach CPR, I make you actually do the motions,” Jess explained. "For the Heimlich, I actually make you put your elbow placement and hit the back, and wrap your arms around [them], and make sure that your one leg is between their legs in case they pass out.”
Jess made Pat actually get into the right position for the maneuver. Pat’s reaction had nothing to do with CPR. Instead, he walked out of the training having completely misread the situation and misunderstood Jess’ intentions.
“This girl … that was pushy! Is she hitting on me?” Pat remembered thinking. “I usually read these signals badly and miss them, but this one was glaringly obvious and I’m not going to let it go.”
“He took that like I was coming onto him, but that wasn’t the case,” Jess laughed. She had just wanted to make sure any athletes would be safe in an emergency scenario with Pat. She was simply doing her job.
Pat eventually moved on his misread signal and the two started dating.
By 2015, Pat had been assigned to work with the sprint football team. When the training staff shuffled their team assignments a year later, Pat recommended Jess take on sprint as well.
“I think it also helps our relationship because we’re working towards something. We want to win, we want the guys to get better and make sure nobody is getting injured. We share common goals professionally and personally,” Jess said. “As lame as it is, we will go home and talk about someone’s functional movement pattern. We’re pretty nerdy.”
The other bonus of working for the same team was an excuse to steal a few minutes together here and there at work, especially with their mismatched and irregular time schedules. The various teams they are assigned to often practice and lift early in the morning and late at night, so the two will often use their one shared assignment to plan their day around, leading to sprint becoming a constant topic of conversation over dinner.
“The gaps [in our schedule] don’t always line up. So I might have to run out and get breakfast for her and almost throw it at her through the door and turn back around and go to work,” Pat said. “When you spend as long a time here [at Penn] as we do … every little minute counts.”
Sprint also provides the two with role models. Coach Bill Wagner’s wife Connie is heavily involved with the team, attending every game as the team’s photographer and baking cookies and brownies for the players to celebrate big wins.
“To see [coach Wagner] and Connie sitting in the same seat on the bus and then us in the same seat just a couple rows behind … it was just relationship goals,” Jess said with a laugh. “Like I hope this is us when we’re 80.”
In August, the two went ring shopping. “Does this mean we’re getting engaged?” Jess remembers asking. “No,” came the reply. “I’m just going to buy the ring, and then you’re going to have to wait.”
“That was really hard — knowing that it was in our apartment and that I had to wait for it,” Jess said. “In my head, I’m like, ‘When is he going to do this?’ And I’m thinking, Christmas, New Year’s, my birthday is right around there too. So okay probably it’ll be winter break.”
Jess had made one thing clear: Pat had to take the step of asking her dad for permission to marry before the proposal. Before Thanksgiving, Jess’ dad had been in the area, and Pat had missed a chance to talk to him in person, frustrating Jess to no end. Little did she know that he had already made the call.
The pressure from waiting started to bubble over on the drive up to Jess’ family home in Scranton, Pa. for Thanksgiving dinner.
“I made a really sneaky plan, so I had to kind of be a little evasive. She could sense that I was being kind of withheld,” Pat said. “We must have quibbled — fought, like yelled at each other — five times in the two-and-a-half-hour drive.”
“Listen, I’m really sorry, I’m just stressed because going home for Thanksgiving isn’t fun and rejuvenating and relaxing,” Jess told him. Her mom hosts the dinner for the whole family, forcing Jess into the role of hostess — focusing on others without taking the time to relax and enjoy herself.
“I was being very clearly sketchy about the whole thing,” Pat acknowledged. “It was frustrating her.
“We were pulling up the road into her driveway, and we got there, and we were arguing. And I got out of the car…”
Now alone, Jess started to panic. “We get there, and I hear him say ‘What am I even doing here?’”
“What I was planning on doing was proposing to her at Thanksgiving dinner. I wanted to — in a really simple, classy way — go around the table, talk about what we’re thankful for, and I was going to talk about how I was thankful for her and then just make it happen right there,” Pat explained.
“I meant it like ‘What am I doing here? I’m making this so much more complicated than I need to! I could just say it to her right now!’ So I sent her inside. I was like ‘I just need a moment to breathe out here, do you mind just taking these bags in?’ I set mine aside, she went in, and I took the ring out. She came back out and…”
“My initial thought was ‘He is not doing this without asking my father.’ Because for all I knew, he had not talked to my dad yet.”
Jess says she doesn’t remember a word Pat said to her. Pat says she stood there crying without answering his question.
After what must have seemed like hours, the newly engaged couple finally made it inside to announce the news.
Love doesn’t always follow the game plan we write for it. It didn’t for sprint football that frigid November night, and it didn’t for Pat and Jess either. But where Penn failed to secure a ring, the newest Penn Athletics power couple made sure they didn’t make the same mistake.
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