Speaking to a crowd of about 200 people outside Pulaski Street School Saturday, an emotional Riverhead football coach Leif Shay warned he might not make it through his remarks.
Everyone was gathered to say goodbye to longtime volunteer assistant coach Paul DeCabia, who died last Sunday, just weeks after coaching his final game with the Blue Waves.
“He was a gentle man,” Coach Shay said in describing his close friend and colleague. “Everyone here has felt his love.”
Mr. DeCabia, 65, a former teacher who lived with his wife Kathleen in Baiting Hollow and was self-employed as a title reader, first became involved in the football program in 2001 when his two sons, Brian and Daniel, played on the team. After they graduated, he stuck around to help the next generation of Blue Waves players.
The DeCabia brothers rang the school’s bell during the brief ceremony Saturday, which was held immediately after a funeral mass at St. John the Evangelist R.C. Church. The two sons rang the “Victory Bell,” normally rung by players after a win, 15 times in their father’s honor — once for each season he coached the program’s linemen. Players from each of those teams were in attendance for the brief ceremony, many of them wearing their letterman jackets.
“I see a lot of great men here that are doing great things with their lives,” Coach Shay said. “That is in no small part thanks to Coach DeCabia.”
One of those young men is Ethan Greenidge, a 2015 Riverhead High School graduate who just completed his freshman season at Villanova University. A tackle, he spoke of the special bond Coach DeCabia had with the linemen.
He recalled the times the coach would invite the linemen to his house, where he’d roast a pork and talk about football and life in general with them.
“He helped me get a college scholarship,” Greenidge said. “He taught me all the right ways to play the game.”
Mike Owen and Jeremy Hobson, 2005 Riverhead graduates who both went on to play college sports — Owen as a tight end at Syracuse University and Hobson as a lacrosse midfielder at New York Tech — said their experience playing for Coach DeCabia dates back about 20 years. Teammates with Brian DeCabia on the 2003 Rutgers Trophy-winning Riverhead football team, they played for Coach DeCabia at the PAL level all the way through high school.
“He’s meant something to us for almost our whole lives,” said Hobson, who played wide receiver for the Blue Waves. “Even for those of us who weren’t linemen, he taught the fundamentals. He’d teach you how to get back on track and he helped out tremendously.”
Owen, who also coached alongside Coach DeCabia at Riverhead before taking a job as a scout for the Green Bay Packers, said seeing a whole generation of Riverhead players and their parents at the school Saturday is symbolic of how “tight-knit” the program is.
“It shows you how close everyone is in this Riverhead family,” he said. “We all love each other.”
Coach DeCabia’s former players and their parents have raised more than $3,000 this week to help his family pay for funeral expenses. Additional fundraisers are in the works, community members said.
After the DeCabia brothers rang the bell Saturday, their mother thanked everyone for showing up to pay their respects to her husband. Each of Coach DeCabia’s former players in attendance then huddled together for a long embrace.
“Family on 3,” yelled Coach Shay as they gathered together. “1-2-3 family,” the players shouted back.