There I was, sitting in the home team locker room at Mitchel Field in Uniondale, L.I., in early September, 2010.
I had my reporter pad and pen in hand, my recording device fully charged and was waiting eagerly for my first sports assignment for The Tablet to commence – a CHSFL football matchup between the St. Francis Prep, Fresh Meadows, L’il Terriers and the Mount St. Michael Academy, the Bronx, Mountaineers.
In addition to writing a game recap for the paper, I was tasked with writing a feature story on the Prep’s legendary varsity football coach Vince O’Connor. I didn’t know much at the time about Coach O’Connor, so I was anxious to meet him and find out the backstory behind his coaching longevity. That fall marked his 58th season at the helm of the St. Francis Prep program.
I, of course, did not want to interrupt any of his pregame preparation, so we sat down in the locker room to talk probably about two hours before kickoff. I even told him to feel free to cut the interview short whenever he had to head to the field.
So I began with some basic background questions to get things started. But those were all that I needed.
Coach O’Connor proceeded to enlighten me for a good portion of the next two hours, talking about everything from his days growing up in Park Slope, to his schooling at Manual Training H.S., to his time serving in the U.S. Army and of course about his coaching philosophy.
Meanwhile, I was the one that wound up cutting the interview short when I told Coach that his game was starting very soon. We both headed out to the field and agreed to talk afterwards about the game itself.
It was an exciting game that featured a valiant comeback attempt by the L’il Terriers, but the Mountaineers wound up victorious, 32-26.
Though the players were upset that their efforts came up short, Coach O’Connor gathered them together in the end zone and reassured them that they had made significant strides from their 31-6 loss the previous week to rival Holy Cross H.S., Flushing.
He and I discussed the game afterwards – certainly for not as long as the pregame interview – and I further realized this man’s passion for the game and, more importantly, his players.
I said to myself that night with the utmost respect: “The only way Vince O’Connor is going to give up coaching is if he dies.”
Fast forward more than four years later, and I was skimming through my Twitter feed last Saturday morning. It was then that I saw what I thought I’d never see after writing that first article years ago.
Posted on the St. Francis Prep Twitter page by Rich Carroll, the assistant varsity football coach, was the following: “Terrible News. It is with a heavy heart that I reach out to you the St. Francis Prep Football Family and make this post… Last night our beloved coach, Coach Vince O’Connor, passed away. I do not have all the details but as ‘his boys,’ I wanted you to all take a moment and please say a prayer for a man that has had such an impact on our lives…God Bless you, Coach O’Connor… We love you!!!…Rest in Peace!!!”
I was shocked. Coach O’Connor had passed away at the age of 85. I knew his health wasn’t perfect, as evidenced by his slightly limited role with the team this past season, but still this news came as a surprise.
I immediately found myself thinking back to that locker room interview at Mitchel Field and how Coach O’Connor took the time out of his preparation schedule to meet with me and provide plentiful information for my story.
Plain and simple, the man was a legend. Sure I can list his football accolades, such as 62 years coaching, 341 wins – good enough for second place in New York state – 16 CHSFL titles, serving as a founding member of the league itself, 20-time recipient of New York’s Catholic High School Coach of the Year award and coaching nine players that went on to play in the NFL.
But even without all this success, Coach O’Connor is a legend in how he molded countless young boys into men who live out the values of Catholicism. He was also vital to the success of the CHSFL, which is regarded as one of the most competitive high school football leagues in the country.
The league released a statement on its website, which embodies Coach O’Connor’s dedication over the years: “As the Dean of the coaches of the CHSFL, Coach O’Connor, by his presence alone, helped to cultivate the camaraderie and mutual respect that is part of the fabric of the league.”
Echoing these sentiments, here is the introduction to the article I wrote back in 2010: “Emphasizing integrity, fair play, and reliability to his players, St. Francis Prep’s varsity football Head Coach Vincent O’Connor has served as an inspiration for all those who have come in contact with his work.”
Coach’s legacy will certainly live on with the Prep’s state-of-the-art fitness center named in his honor. But even more meaningful, his legacy will come alive whenever a coach takes a genuine interest in each of the players on his roster, or when a coach takes his team to Mass before a game, or even in a coach’s nurturing speech after a tough game.
“I always felt that being a coach and being a part of athletics would be something I’d enjoy,” O’Connor told me in that locker room. “I also thought that, mainly as a Catholic, I wanted to help guide young men in their careers and talk about what it takes to be a good Christian and a good athlete.”
Well Coach, you succeeded wholeheartedly, and though you will be surely missed, we are all better people for having known you and seen you enjoy your life’s passion.
Rest in peace, Coach! Thank you for inspiring us to do our best!
Contact Jim Mancari via email at email@example.com.