A fond farewell

Fitch honors late coach Annarella

Tribune Chronicle / John Vargo Austintown Fitch senior lineman Tom Rader holds up his helmet with a heart symbol on the back reading ‘Coach Annarella’ to pay homage to their coach who died in early June. The Falcons community held a tribute to Phil Annarella on Friday, after the team’s last scrimmage against Akron Buchtel. Tribune Chronicle / John Vargo A banner pays respect to Austintown Fitch football coach Phil Annarella, who died in early June. There was a tribute to Annarella on Friday.

AUSTINTOWN — The Austintown Fitch football players started to shed their helmets, as well as the Akron Buchtel Griffins.

The Falcons football players and staff didn’t meander southward toward their locker room, as is custom for most home games. They headed north toward a short stack of bleachers laid out for them.

Buchtel’s players and coaches made their way to the west stands instead of their Akron City School buses.

Something was different after Friday’s scrimmage, the last one for both teams.

Red plastic-based chairs were set at a 45-degree angle next to the players’ bleachers for Phil Annarella’s family, paying homage to the former Fitch football coach who died at age 70 in early June.

Tribune Chronicle / John Vargo A banner pays respect to Austintown Fitch football coach Phil Annarella, who died in early June. There was a tribute to Annarella on Friday.

The Austintown Fitch band and choir had fitting tributes to the coach, who would’ve been going into his 13th season with the Falcons. There was a 3-plus minute video tribute, which brought more than a few tears.

The coach’s immediate family were embraced by a handful of Fitch football players coming through to pay their respects.

Coach Annarella had a 83-46 record, a Federal League title and six playoff runs.

Football. That’s what the former Warren G. Harding, Warren Western Reserve, Niles McKinley and Fitch coach taught so many over the years.

That wasn’t all. That wasn’t what was important to coach Annarella.

Chris Berni, Director of Pupil Services for Austintown Schools, spoke of the foundation Annarella instilled in so many young men and coaches. The character of being a good person through and through when no one is watching. The attitude of overcoming adversity, having the will to succeed — never quitting.

The academics of taking the time and effort into education. Annarella would walk the halls of Fitch High School, checking on their players and grades.

The consistency of doing the right thing all of the time. Finally, faith of believing in themselves, others and the belief in something bigger than all of us.

Annarella’s reach was bigger than just what he had in the Fitch community, but the news of his passing hit hard those who knew him well.

Bill Price, 57, is one of the team’s equipment managers, knowing Annarella quite well — learning so much from the Fitch mentor. He went out to pass headsets before Friday’s scrimmage. None for Annarella.

It wasn’t as hard as coming in after he found out about the coach’s passing.

“I got there before anybody was here,” Price said. “I actually shed tears because his locker is right next to mine. To walk into there and his shoes were inside his locker.

“To know he’ll never ask me a question about something, regardless if it was serious or silly, is hard. The love us coaches had for him is immense.”

Fitch administrative assistant John Jones, 45, had sunglasses on to hide his emotions on Friday. He was caught off guard, as so many were, by Annarella’s passing, considering the excellent health of the former Fitch coach.

Jones remembers how his coach cared for his students, who were more than athletes — telling them to be great family men.

Through this, Jones never takes a day for granted.

“You just never know when it may not be there,” he said.

Chris Raymond, 37, who came on as the team doctor in 2008, knew Annarella as pure human being — never meeting a better one.

Those pre-game speeches were more than inspirations.

“They way he spoke, with the passion he had, was something,” Raymond said. “Twenty years out of high school and I wanted to get out there and play again.”

Assistant Fitch coach Steve Zielinski, who spent more than three decades of coaching with Annarella, former Chaney coach Ron Berdis and Lakeview coach Tom Pavlansky, remembers how Annarella outworked everybody, demanding 110 percent from his coaches and players.

Preparation was a foundation to this Fitch program. Those are the things Annarella’s former players remembered and brought to their own lives. Zielinski appreciated when former players could come back to relive those days with their former coach.

“He would have a smile on his face, so would they,” Zielinski, 56, said. “They would embrace. Those were guys who played years ago for him. Those were guys who played last year.”

Senior lineman Tom Rader, 17, gives back to his community through the service projects for National Honor Society. Helping others makes the Fitch senior happy.

“If any of us turn out half as good as coach Annarella was, that’s a success,” Rader said. “That’s what he wants from us, to be successful off the field.”

Fitch interim coach Jon Elliot said Friday’s tribute was great, seeing the family and the people he meant so much to was touching.

The Falcons move on with the ways and means set forth by the diligent work of Annarella.

“It’s bigger than all of us,” Elliot, 55, said. “They have to remember this going forward. All the things they have learned from coach and what we’re trying to teach them is we want them to be productive citizens when they leave this place.

“That doesn’t mean going to college or making a lot of money. That means doing the right things.”

That’s all Annarella wanted from his players as they exit the field for the last time.