Less than a millimeter separated Curtiss Belcher Jr. from a sudden and tragic death.
That’s why Belcher, a 48-year-old Frederick resident, celebrates the small joys every day with his wife, Kim, and their two sons, Michael and Matthew.
One of those joys is taking over the varsity football program at Tuscarora High School, a position he officially accepted early last week after being in line for it for months.
Both of his boys played football at Tuscarora and Belcher had previously served the program for five years as an assistant coach, including three as the team’s defensive coordinator, under former coaches Dean Swink and Mike O’Brien.
Belcher already spent one season as the head coach for boys lacrosse at Tuscarora, meaning that he is already familiar with the inner workings of the Titans’ athletic department and many of the athletes he will be charged to lead on the football field.
He has no plans to give up his lacrosse job. The football job is just in addition to that.
“He was my first hire,” Tuscarora athletic director Howie Putterman said in reference to the boys lacrosse job. Putterman took over the position in August of 2018, less than a week before the start of the fall season.
Coaches like Belcher don’t come on the market very often on the high-school level.
His kids had already graduated. It’s a demanding job with huge responsibility, long hours and very little pay.
There was no real reason for Belcher to continue a coaching career that has spanned nearly 27 years — including stints as a football assistant at Quince Orchard, Clarksburg and Poolesville high schools, in addition to the semipro Washington (D.C.) Chiefs of Minor Football League — other than he really loved the job.
“Curtiss is a culture changer. He is a great leader of young men,” Putterman said. “It’s not just about becoming part of a team with him. It’s about becoming a productive part of the community.”
Belcher’s lacrosse players at Tuscarora have logged hours doing community-service projects and giving back to the youth sports organizations in the area as coaches and counselors. And that’s just in his one season on the job.
“When he applied for the football job, I was excited to know he was even interested in it,” Putterman said. “I knew that once he accepted it, we had the right man for the job. And I knew, once we announced it, that people in the community were going to be excited about it.”
It almost never came to pass, however.
In December of 1990, following his freshman season at Towson State, where he played linebacker and later switched to the defensive line, Belcher was involved in a weight-lifting accident that nearly cost him his life.
After finishing up a bench-press set, Belcher was working to put the bar back on the rack. But his spotter never secured his grip on the bar firmly, and when Belcher let go, the bar and hundreds of pounds of weight came crashing down on his face.
The brunt of the impact occurred at the bridge of his nose, right underneath the eyebrows. The force was such that a bone came within “micro millimeters” of piercing the layer of cerebrospinal fluid around his brain, according to Belcher. That would have killed him.
After 16 hours of surgery at a nearby shock-trauma facility, doctors had reconstructed Belcher’s face with the help of small bones from other portion’s of his body so that it was not obvious an accident had occurred.
“Somebody was looking out for me. I got so lucky,” he said. “All of my doctors did such an amazing job putting me back together.”
Belcher returned to the field at Towson State. But the accumulation of head trauma and head injuries prompted his coaches to pull him off the field for good after his junior season.
They found a role for Belcher on the coaching staff, and that ignited his passion for helping people achieve success both on and off the field.
“If you are able to help someone make a difference, that’s what you should do,” Belcher said.
After coaching football for almost three decades, Belcher will be the head man for the first time. He takes over at Tuscarora for a longtime Frederick County football coach, Vince Ahearn, who led the Titans to a 27-22 record and one playoff appearance over the course of his five seasons. Tuscarora was 3-6 last season.
“The obvious thing is it’s much bigger than coaching lacrosse,” Belcher said, referring to the size of the team. “There’s the number of players involved, the number of parents involved. The number of coaches involved. There’s more organization that is needed, more preparation that is needed. It’s the most scrutinized sport on the high-school level. There’s some pressure in that.”
Ordinarily, a coach that takes over a high school football program in early July with the scheduled start of practice a little more than a month away would be behind the eight ball in a serious way.
But the coronavirus pandemic has leveled the playing field for Belcher in such a way that no other teams have been able to do much of anything either. So, is he really that far behind?
“This is an unprecedented time we are all living through right now,” he said. “I can tell you that we have a quality school, and we are going to put quality people in place. We have a good thing going here, and we hope to capitalize on that and hit the ground running once we are able to begin activities.”