Given the fact that this column will be headed for the front page of the sports section, I suppose I should make an attempt to keep things somewhat sports-related as I move forward.
That should be easy, as the topic is Tony Napolet. The longtime John F. Kennedy football coach resigned earlier this week, ending a career which spanned nearly five decades.
Napolet's accomplishments certainly are worthy of headline recognition on these pages. His 214-103-3 overall record was impressive, to say the very least. His 12 playoff appearances was a tremendous feat. His three state championship appearances and a Division IV state title place him in an extremely elite class.
In short, Napolet's resume will land him in several sports halls of fame.
Yet in a big way, this column has nothing to do with sports. Instead, it is all about a great man who just happened to be a tremendous football coach. It is about a guy who hasn't taught inside a classroom in decades, yet who never stopped teaching invaluable life lessons.
In fact, any of Napolet's former players or assistant coaches will tell you that football was just a very small by-product of the overall message Napolet conveyed during practices and on game nights.
Perhaps more than any other Trumbull County coach who has ever walked the sidelines, Napolet used football as a platform to teach a bigger lesson.
United States Congressman Tim Ryan has known Napolet for years. He served as an assistant under Napolet while attending college. Though he was on the staff for just one year, Ryan insists the experience changed his life.
"Coach Napolet used athletics as a means to teach life. His top concern wasn't wins and losses. He was all about molding young men and developing them into solid citizens," Ryan said. "The football success came because his players and coaches loved him. They would have run through a brick wall for that guy."
Not surprisingly, Ryan's most vivid memory involving Napolet doesn't take place on a football field. Ryan recalls walking into Sts. Peter and Paul Church for a Sunday mass, and seeing Napolet tucked away in a corner, praying the rosary.
"To me, it just said everything about who he was," Ryan said. "He practiced what he preached, but at the same time he did everything possible to stay out of the limelight."
Ryan noted that Napolet's locker room speeches were often void of football talk. Instead, he might suggest that his players "make God their best friend." He would constantly preach of the importance of family.
"He brought a level of spirituality to sports that is quite uncommon. The Kennedy football program was a family in every sense of the word because of Coach Napolet," Ryan said.
Westminster College track and cross country coach Tim McNeil played for Napolet, then served for five years as a JFK coach. McNeil was a key ingredient in the Eagles' 1991 state championship season. Yet even a victory on high school football's biggest stage took a backseat to the bigger picture painted by Napolet.
McNeil noted that he often discovers himself trying to model his career based on the lessons he learned at JFK.
"The state title was awesome. But what I take away from that season more than anything was the way in which Coach Napolet cared about us players away from football. He was a mentor and a father-figure. He was a life teacher," McNeil said.
Napolet's ability to connect with others reached far beyond the football community.
From a reporter's perspective, working with Napolet was as rewarding as if you were one of his own players or assistant coaches. With each conversation, you walked away knowing a little more about Kennedy football and a lot more about life.
I once interviewed Napolet for a playoff preview. The first 15 minutes of our talk revolved around football. For the next 45 minutes, Napolet promised to pray for my ailing mother, offered up a remedy for my flu (boiled homemade wine), and discussed in length my son and daughter, who he never met.
It was genuine Napolet. It was sincere. It was what has made the guy an icon within our community, both on and off the football field. It was typical of many of our conversations which would follow.
Those who didn't know any better might be inclined to believe Napolet's overall record was 0-103. After every loss, he went out of his way to take full responsibility. A Kennedy victory, and Napolet immediately and emphatically directed all the credit toward his players and coaches.
Those of us who did know better knew that Napolet was the glue that held a program together for the past two decades. In fact, some might argue that he has done more than any one single individual to help keep the doors of Kennedy open all these years.
I for one will not offer up a counter argument.
On behalf of the Kennedy football community, thank you Coach Napolet for a job well done. The decades of gridiron success will leave lasting memories.
On behalf of all of Warren, thank you Mr. Napolet for your service to the community. Your decades of success in producing fine young men will leave a legacy for generations to come.