Mel Filler, coach and mentor

Mel Filler

Mel Filler, known to generations of high-school football players simply as "Coach," and to former players as "Uncle Mel," died Dec. 5 after a three-year battle with leukemia. A longtime Forest Hill resident, he was 86.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., he attended Erasmus Hall High School in Flatbush, earning his high school diploma from the School of Industrial Arts in Manhattan. After a stint as an Army medic took him to Europe during World War II, he enrolled at Shepherd College in West Virginia, graduating in 1950, then earned his Master of Fine Arts from Columbia University in New York in 1951.

He moved to Baltimore that year, taking a job as an art teacher at Stemmers Run Junior High. He went on to teach and become chairman of the art department at Western High School, then became head of the graphic arts department in the publications bureau of Baltimore City Schools. He retired from that position in 1982.

But it was as a football coach that Mr. Filler made his biggest impact. Hired by the legendary football figure George Young during Young's first year as Baltimore City College head coach in 1959, he focused on offense, helping map out the attack while working with the team's receivers.

City College beat archrival Poly six out of eight times and won six Maryland Scholastic Association championships before Mr. Filler left in 1967.

The annual City-Poly game — played every Thanksgiving at Memorial Stadium for years — wasn't just a city-wide phenomenon that drew tens of thousands of fans. It was a family ritual.

"We didn't spend that holiday at home with a turkey. We spent it at Memorial Stadium. The other coaches and the players were like one huge family," his son, Curtis Filler of Forest Hill, recalled with a laugh.

He took several years away from coaching but eventually returned, serving two stints at John Carroll High School in Bel Air (1985-86 and 1994-2007) and another at Calvert Hall College (1988-1993).

During the coaching hiatus, Colts scouting director Bob Terpening, a former coaching colleague at City College, hired him as a "self-scout" for the NFL team in 1983.

For two years, Mr. Filler watched every game, charting every play and taking extensive notes, and he shared his findings with offensive coordinator Zeke Bratkowski every Monday.

"Mel's doing a helluva job for a guy who never did self-scouting before," Mr. Bratkowski said in a 1983 Evening Sun feature on Mr. Filler.

He had a vast knowledge of football, recalls the Rev. Raymond Banks, a pastor with the Lord's Church in Northwest Baltimore who starred as a City College wide receiver during the 1960s.

But his manner taught as much as his X's and O's.

"He was compassionate. He never screamed or yelled. He explained what he wanted you to do, and he encouraged you to do it," said Banks. "And me? I had a nervous stomach before games — I was anxious until the first hit — and he gave me this concoction of water and ammonia he had used as a medic in the Army. It always did the trick."

Mr. Filler stayed in close touch with Mr. Banks over the years, as he did with scores of other players who had viewed him not just as a coach but also as a father figure who tracked their progress on and off the field.

Along with some fellow ex-coaches, he organized a reunion of 15 former City College players about three months ago.

"He laughed and laughed," Mr. Banks said. "We're hoping to plan another one in his honor."

To Curtis Filler, his father was a man who had "a family of 30 new kids every year," adding that "when practice was over, it wasn't over. If [players] didn't have a home to go to, he'd bring them to our home."

He also recalls how his father, a lifelong music fan, encouraged him to listen to a range from Big Band icons such as Benny Goodman and Buddy Rich to latter-day stars John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

"I was the only kid in high school whose father bought [him] all the Beatles albums," Curtis Filler said, adding that his father also read avidly, especially the works of James Michener, John Grisham and other bestselling authors.

Mr. Filler won numerous coaching honors, including the Jerry Mears Service to Football Award from the Maryland State Scholastic Football Coaches Association in 1992, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Baltimore Touchdown Club in 1998 and membership in the John Carroll Hall of Fame in 2004.

He was also a longtime member of the Baltimore Chapter, National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame, including stints as president and board member, and he belonged to the American Football Coaches Association and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Post 9083, among other organizations.

In addition to his son, he is survived by a daughter, Bonnie Cook, of Forest Hill; a sister, Sandra Bonsall of Towson; and two grandsons, Adam Scott Cook of Parkville and Matthew Walter Cook of Joppatowne. His wife of 58 years, Merva Filler, died in 2009.

A private burial service was held Dec. 9 at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens. The public is invited to a celebration of Mr. Filler's life at 6 p.m. Saturday at the John Carroll School Auditorium, 703 E. Churchville Road in Bel Air.