When I last spoke to Coach Jimmy Ross, he was sitting in the back room at American Legion Post No. 127, on South Cottage Place, playing a slot machine. He was wearing his trademark orange baseball cap with the word "Coach" above the bill.

If you were looking for Ross, a good friend said, "that's where you'll find him. He spends part of just about every day -- 366 days out of 365 -- at the Legion, gambling, playing cards, batting the breeze."

And his wife, Elsie, was sitting right there beside him.

That was almost 15 months ago.

He looked well, despite his age -- 75 at the time -- and the fact that he'd just been the victim of a knock-down robbery the day before, in broad daylight, on the streets of York City.

James Ross
James Ross

He lost $400 in the robbery, plus a black cane that was his pride and joy. He wasn't a bit worried about the money, he said, but he did want to get the cane back. Eventually, he did.

"It was one of a kind," Ross said. "It was black with a cobra head on the end. It pulled apart on the shaft where there was a hidden sword inside the cane. Nobody had a cane like that."

Eventually, the robber was arrested by the York City Police.

It was a potentially disastrous story that ended well. Not all such stories have successful endings, but Ross was looking on the bright side. He had moved to York in the mid-1950s, had coached midget football for the South York Boys Club for 44 years, and he figured the young man who robbed him might have been one of his former players.

If so, he figured, the young man might turn himself in when he realizes he just robbed Coach.

It was the height of optimism.

That was Coach -- full of vim and vigor, always looking for the best in people.

But no more. The coach, 77, died last Saturday, his wife of 42 years at his side.

Born in Elmira, N.Y., he became an adopted "Yorker" when he moved here after being honorably discharged from the U.S. Marines. A smallish man -- 5 feet 8 and 130 pounds soaking wet -- Ross had played end and halfback on the Marines' football team.

His passion was football. So when he came to York, it didn't take very long for him to get involved in the South York midget football program. He was the head coach of the Rinks for almost 20 years and the Midgets for more than 20 years, having won as many as eight league championships and more than a dozen division titles.

Many young men who played for York High from the mid-1960s through the mid-2000s had Ross for a coach, including such well-known players as Tisen Thomas and Andre Powell, both of whom played at Penn State under Joe Paterno.

Ross was inducted into the Central Penn Midget Football League Hall of Fame in recognition of his years of coaching service.

As important, however, is the level of respect his adopted community had developed for him. In York City, one would be hard-pressed to find anyone more loved and better known than Ross, especially within the black community.

"... He's one of the stars of the neighborhood," one member of the VFW Post 127 said. "Coach is much loved."

While everyone in the VFW was singing the coach's praises 15 months ago, he hardly paid them any mind. He sat in the back room, playing a game, reminding himself how lucky he was for not being injured in the assault on his person.

Not half as lucky, I might suggest, as were the many thousands of city youth who benefited from his guiding hand over the years.

In the end, the most important work of his life took place on the sidelines of midget football games. That's what he believed. Working with kids, especially inner-city boys, is what motivated him to return to the football field each fall.

He had an obligation, he said, to teach York City youth all he knew about the game of football.

For 44 years, Coach did just that.

Sports columns by Larry A. Hicks, Dispatch columnist, run Thurs days. E-mail: lhick s@yorkdispatch.com.