I’ll never forget that day in Babylon in the fall of 1998. I was a senior at Mercy High School, playing in one of the final football games of the season, and we were getting our tails kicked in. At halftime the score was so obscenely lopsided that if forfeiting didn’t carry such universal shame, I’m sure most of my teammates would have elected to pack up, get on the bus and head back to Mercy.
We were outmatched by better athletes, with no chance of coming back, suffering the most embarrassing loss of a 2-6 campaign. It was the kind of season (of which there were many back then) that made you wonder why the school even had a football program. If this was the best we could do, then what was the point? People around town, of course, spoke that way out loud, but now I could read the same question puzzling out in my teammates’ faces.
Jeff Doroski, then the team’s offensive coordinator, strode into the locker room and could read it, too. He could see the doubt — the will to win replaced by fear and indifference. I could tell how that attitude, more than our play on the field, had disappointed him. I braced for the impact of what would have been a well-justified berating. Instead, he offered up the best locker room speech I’ve ever heard — counting every sports movie I’ve ever seen.
It’s hard to do it justice here, but I remember the takeaway perfectly clearly: I’ll take any one of you. You think they’re better players than you are, and maybe you’re right, but I’ll take any one of you.
He proceeded to call each of us out by name, telling us why he wouldn’t trade us in for any one of the members of the team across the field, which went on to win the county championship. We had been through a lot together, he explained, and that made us family. Nothing — not even the pitiful display on the field — could ever tear that apart. Before he let us go, he implored us to leave whatever we had left on the field. We did.
We didn’t rally to a comeback, but Coach Doroski gave us something far more powerful. Throughout a football season, you obsess over the how: the X’s and O’s. How to get it right. That day, Coach Doroski gave us the why.
It’s easy to see as an adult. It’s much harder to see as a student-athlete. But the fact is, high school sports has to be about more than winning and losing. If it’s not about learning how to work with others, to overcome obstacles — and gracefully deal with defeat — then what good is it? Why have high school sports at all?
I’ve had the pleasure of playing for a lot of great football coaches in my life —at Mercy, then at Springfield College and again in Vermont, where I played semi-pro — and I say without hesitation that Coach Doroski was the best coach I ever played for. He’s more than a font of wisdom who builds character in his athletes; he has a great mind for the game and has finally unlocked a winning formula at Mercy, which has known too much defeat over the years.
That’s why it’s so maddening to see Coach Doroski ousted as head coach of Mercy football just a season after restoring the program to competitive status. Athletic director Paul Mastronardi and principal Carl Semmler have a lot of explaining to do.
If none of the aforementioned good reasons means anything to them, maybe they need to be reminded of what a terrible football decision they’re making.
The author is a 1999 graduate of Bishop McGann-Mercy High School. He grew up in Riverhead and now lives in Rocky Point. He’s a senior editor at Muscle & Fitness in NYC. Follow him @MCTuthill on Twitter.