Rich Reichert paced a subterranean hallway lined with football players at St. Anthony's High School, his face radiating intensity as he spouted words full of fire.
The 61-year-old football coach is known for emotional pregame speeches, and this one was no different. He delivered it on homecoming night, Oct. 25, at the South Huntington parochial school moments before facing Chaminade High School, arch rivals from Mineola.
"Sacrifice for each other," Reichert demanded as an MSG Varsity cameraman followed his every move. "I am old enough to be every one of your fathers. But tonight I'm asking you to be my brother."
With one last team hurrah, about 80 shoulder-pad-clad teenagers sprang to their feet in one motion and charged toward a stadium overflowing with 6,000 screaming fans. When the game ended, the St. Anthony's Friars -- who finished the season with 11 wins and one loss, and was the No. 1 team in Newsday's Long Island Large Schools football poll -- handed defending Catholic league champion Chaminade a 38-10 defeat.
Reichert's impassioned address had set the tone, but his words were significant for another reason. At a school run by Franciscan brothers, where academics come first, St. Anthony's has also earned a reputation as a sports powerhouse. And leading the way is a collection of coaches old enough to be grandfathers.
Reichert teaches physical education and is the youngster of the group. Gene Buonaiuto, 77, owns 381 career wins and led the boys soccer team to the state Catholic High School Athletic Association title last month. And Dave Prutting, 76, has won 418 games with a nationally recognized girls soccer program. "Being around the kids, it's kind of infectious," explained Prutting, of East Northport. "You practice, laugh with them and enjoy life. You start to feel better."
Old enough to retire
These coaches are of a certain age, a diminishing demographic that spur young athletes from the sidelines of area high schools. Many coaches stop because careers take off or family obligations keep growing. Still others step down once they retire from teaching. And some are forced out of the job.
Not so at St. Anthony's. It's an environment where passion is rewarded and longevity prized. Not only do the Friars field a roster of veteran coaches, even junior varsity and freshman coaches are seasoned leaders. That includes Tony Petrilli, 80, from Commack, who is the freshman football coach at St. Anthony's.
"I just question why I would want to discriminate against a man who has 40-50 years of collective experience," said Brother Gary Cregan, the school's principal. "Why would I tell this man he has to retire when he still has a fire within him? Fire is not contingent upon age."
Varsity coaches Buonaiuto, Prutting and Reichert each set an enviable standard. "They're still coaching, and frankly at the highest level," athletic director Don Buckley said. "Traditionally all three varsity teams are among the best in the state." He added, "I hope these guys are with me a long time."
These coaches have ushered in a Golden Age of sports in South Huntington, and their longevity is uncommon, even to those very familiar with high school sports on Long Island.
"I'm surprised to hear they have coaches that age," said Ed Cinelli, executive director of Section XI, the governing body of Suffolk high school sports. "Good for them. They still have that energy and enthusiasm to coach youngsters -- that's unique."
The atmosphere is decidedly different around these coaches who have toiled for decades, building something meaningful so close to home. The word Buonaiuto, Prutting and Reichert invoke again and again is "family."
That's what drew Joe Minucci, a 1999 St. Anthony's graduate, back to his alma mater. He returned to teach and coach football alongside his mentor. He serves as Reichert's defensive coordinator and marvels at the work ethic of the head coach.
"A high-school coach is unique," Minucci said. "There's an obvious passion for kids and passion for the sport. It's about being a mentor."
Family is what pulled Buonaiuto, of Smithtown, into coaching. He caught the bug at Christ the King in Commack. Buonaiuto directed Catholic Youth Organization track, football and soccer teams there before moving on to the Long Island Junior Soccer League.
"My son Steven was in third grade," Buonaiuto said. "He happened to have a great knack for scoring. That's how I started coaching. I delved into it." He began volunteering at St. Anthony's in 1977, when his eldest son became a Friar. He was handed the varsity job in 1985 and has been at it ever since. It became such an obsession, Buonaiuto took vacation time during soccer season and switched shifts with co-workers -- anything to spend more time on the field.
It also proved an important mental break. Buonaiuto spent 36 years as a New York City firefighter, mostly based in Queens. He was a pump driver in an era before GPS technology was available. Navigating cramped Jamaica streets, finding a quick route to the emergency call and getting a hydrant open and water flowing created their own stress.
Less stress than firefighting
"It really was life-and-death situations," he recalled. "You had to know where you're going. It was stressful. Someone yelling from the stands, that's not stress. Coaching is not stress."
Like all head coaches at the school, Buonaiuto has an excellent support system. Co-coach Don Corrao does much of the heavy lifting. And Reichert has an army of assistants, most of whom are experienced volunteers, capable of being head coaches elsewhere.
Prutting also coached to be close to family -- his oldest daughter. He was a volunteer assistant for the L.I. Junior Soccer League's Northport Seahawks, 10-and-under girls soccer team in the late 1970s when the coach died in a motorcycle accident.
That tragic event thrust Prutting into the role of head coach for the next decade. A medical lab technologist who worked the night shift at Stony Brook University, Prutting was 50 when he coached his first girl's soccer game at St. Anthony's.
Now he's one of the biggest names in the game. Soccer defines him, but he's decided that after winning 20 Catholic state titles in 26 years, the 2014 season will likely be his last. Prutting said it's time to hand the reins over to someone else for the good of the program. As for Buonaiuto and Reichert, they have no timetable to leave the games they love.
"Dynasties are not as important as having the right people with the right kids," Cregan, the school's principal, said. "That's my focus. And that's why these men are so valuable and so important to me. Certainly it's nice to have a dynasty, but that's not what makes a good coach great. A good-coach-turned-great is one who can inspire kids with permanent and lifetime memories and permanent and lifetime lessons."
Reichert, of Nesconset, was a Nassau County police officer for 25 years before he began teaching at the school. When he was honored during the 2012 season in October for winning more games than any football coach in Suffolk County history (currently, 230 wins and counting), former players returned en masse, and Reichert greeted them all with his 2-year-old grandson in tow.
A long reception line formed on the field afterward, with players who learned under Reichert through the decades eager to reconnect. It was a measure of one coach's worth that moved beyond wins and losses. "With all the life lessons you learn with football," said Alvin Alcera, a co-captain on Reichert's first team in 1987, "you have to pay tribute to the man that actually gave you those lessons."
Other lessons are more subtle. After superstorm Sandy blew through a year ago, the school's scoreboard needed fixing. Petrilli, who is the senior statesman among coaches, proved utility-knife useful. An electrician by trade, he identified the issue, then climbed a ladder and made the necessary repair.
Petrilli, who led the freshman team to a 6-2 record this fall, was a Pop Warner youth football coach in New York City in his 20s before putting the sport on hold for more than 30 years. He raised two girls and enjoyed a successful career before picking up coaching again, joining, St. Anthony's in 1989.
He has no plans to slow down anytime soon. "I'm going to go as long as I can -- 90, I guess," Petrilli said. "If you enjoy it, keep doing it."