“Rain or Shine, It’s Football Time”

by Eddie Mayrose

If you’ve ever played a sport at any level, it’s likely that you have at least one great story about a coach.

That man, or woman, who taught you not just the rules and techniques of a sport, but more important things about loyalty, commitment and being part of something bigger than yourself. Let’s face it, no matter what the game we play, we eventually have to stop. Once that happens, we’re left with the life lessons handed out along the way by someone who cared more deeply about us than how we may have filled out a stat sheet.

I think that the biggest reason for my lifelong love affair with sports has been the good fortune that has blessed me with great mentors. First, and foremost, was my father, who taught me the intricacies of every position on a baseball field. More than that, he cared about teaching the game to every kid on the team, no matter his skill level. I would watch him during a game, unnecessarily calling to us in the outfield to shift positions and wonder why he bothered.

“Keeps you in the game and makes you feel a part of things,” he’d say. “That’ll make you love the game and become better players.”

We didn’t stay in the outfield for long, however, as he constantly moved his weaker players in and out of the third base position.

“You want to really turn a kid on? Give him a shot in the infield.” That is wisdom I’ve never forgotten. My dad knew that the bottom of a little league lineup doesn’t pull the ball, so, what was the harm? The value, though, was the self esteem that soared within that 8-year-old and gave him a newfound confidence. It was always amazing how a kid’s bat woke up shortly after he’d logged a few innings in the infield.

In my case, the list of great coaches for whom I played is long and diverse. Howie Justvig, Andy Vacante, Don Grady, Bert Miglino, Andy Cella and Pat Kenny were very different personalities with extremely dissimilar styles. Yet, each shaped me in ways that made me a better player and teammate. More than that, many of the things I learned from them also made me a better friend and father long after I put away my spikes. I will  be forever grateful to all of them for the kind sacrifice of their time and knowledge.

As my children started to play sports, I found that the gratitude felt toward a coach that had helped me, increased exponentially for the coaches that were kind to my kids. Now that they’re grown, and team sports are a part of their past, my children number many of these generous people as their friends. They’ve each been given wonderful gifts by the men and women that guided them from peewee leagues all the way through high school and college.

We lost one of those angels last week. Tony DeSimone was the freshman football coach at Xaverian High School when the World Trade Center was attacked on the second day of the school year. More than 40 of the team’s 55 players had never played organized football before and, obviously, none had ever been in high school. The uncertainty of their new surroundings, however, was dwarfed by the impact of the attacks. Too many children attended far too many funerals during those terrible days. It was the haven that Coach D offered to his band of freshman that they still appreciate in adulthood.

“Rain or shine, it’s football time,” was Coach D’s credo; one he shared every day as the team arrived on the practice field.  His coaching expertise was evident from the first day and he seemed to know just how well the kids took to his personality. He was a strong, barrel-chested man whose appearance could be intimidating; until he spoke in a voice so soft that you almost had to ask him to repeat himself. Shorts and a T-shirt, no matter the weather, was his uniform for the season. He was always positive, never demeaning, and those qualities were quickly adapted by what would become a tight knit team. That they went undefeated is merely a footnote to the impact that Coach D had on his players. He knew how frightened they were by what was going on in the world and he took them under his wing to protect them and divert their attention; if only for a few hours a day.

My son was a 5’3” backup quarterback on that squad. Despite his size, he played in every game, as did all of his teammates. Coach D’s commitment to every member on his team inspired both a love of the game and each other that they still carry today. That love spawned not only a high school but college football career for my son, one that we would have never expected back then. The wonderful people he’s met, the places to which he traveled and the education he received all trace some of their roots back to those first uncertain days at Xaverian. I shudder to think what he’d have missed had Tony DeSimone not been there. Godspeed, Coach.

“Rain or shine, it’s football time!”

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