Joe Spinola was sure these kids hated him. He had taken
over a group of ragtag junior high school wrestlers and had challenged them in
a way no one expected. Sometimes a wrestler might surrender his lunch during
practice. Some would leave the mat crying.
All left the gym exhausted.
But they came back, day after day after day.
In 1978-79, the wrestling team at Woodland Junior High School in East
Meadow had lost all nine of its matches. The following season, there was such
little interest in the team or the program that no one stepped forward to coach
the group. Finally, Bob McClellan, one of the school's shop teachers, said
he'd take the team. Although he knew nothing about wrestling, McClellan thought
the kids deserved a season.
So he contacted Spinola, a former East Meadow High School wrestler he knew
who was putting himself through law school, and asked for help.
The arrangement was that McClellan would be on hand, acting as a figurehead
to satisfy the school, but the 20-year-old Spinola would do the coaching.
"I was coaching these kids, but I was still a kid," Spinola said. "I had
my studies and my team, and that's all I cared about. I may not have been
mature enough to understand the nuances of educating and coaching, but I tried
to be everything that I thought a coach should have been. It was all still
fresh in my mind. I saw the way other coaches did things, and I thought I'd do
On a Saturday, he would start practice at 9 a.m. and the wrestlers wouldn't
arrive home until 5 p.m. On a Sunday, he might schedule a pickup game of
basketball. He was building camaraderie, but he also was improving their
conditioning. He might halt a practice to lecture them on the importance of
schoolwork. In fact, one of his rules was that if you weren't passing your
classes, you couldn't wrestle on his team.
"The thing that is burned into my mind is my parents coming up to the
school to look for me at 9 o'clock at night," said Bill Germano, 41, a
chiropractor who now lives in Smithtown. "We were in the weight room, and I
remember a couple of the tougher guys on the team crying. I was on the verge of
tears, and once I saw them crying, I just broke down."
Not all the wrestlers wanted to endure the grueling workouts. Early in the
season, a few of the more-established members of the team tried to fight the
system. They argued, they protested, and they soon found themselves with their
"I was very clear, it was my way or you are off the team," Spinola said.
McClellan, who has since died, looked at Spinola and asked, "Are you
crazy?" Spinola had kicked the two most talented wrestlers off a team that had
very little talent. But Spinola gave these kids so much more. He gave them hope.
"I felt every guy had ability, you just had to find it," Spinola said.
"Anybody can be good. It's a question of what you are willing to do to get
good. I told them, great athletes aren't born, they are made. I told each one
of them, if you work hard, you can achieve your goals."
When you are 13, sweating, crying and every muscle in your body is aching,
it is hard to see the payoff in such words. But during those long hours,
Spinola developed a bond with his wrestlers. He'd yell and scream, but he'd
also get down on the mat and do pushups right alongside them. After practices,
he'd regale them with tales of the great collegiate wrestlers, such as Nick
Gallo and Gene Mills, he'd come across during his career at Hofstra.
"When my parents found me that night in the weight room, they were so
relieved because they thought something terrible had happened to me," Germano
said. "On the ride home, I could tell they were concerned. They said to me, 'Ya
know, if this is too hard, you don't have to do this. Do you know what you are
doing?' I said, 'Yeah, this is great, I can't wait to come back tomorrow.'"
Slowly, all the wrestlers started to come around.
"It really wasn't going so well until the first match," Spinola said. "We
were wrestling Wantagh, and we destroyed them, 44-12. From that point on, the
kids bought into everything I was talking about."
It's been 27 years since Spinola coached them for that lone season. In May,
the former junior high wrestlers - now doctors, accountants, teachers -
reunited at an East Meadow restaurant. All but two of the 15 wrestlers showed
up, and the evening was a tribute to the man many still call coach.
"I wouldn't miss this," said John Kirk, who traveled from Fort Lauderdale.
"That season meant so much to all of us. I had to be here for Joe."
From mat to the bench
ALL RISE! The honorable Joseph P. Spinola, Supreme Court judge, has entered
the Calendar Control Part 1 courtroom to dispense with the civil calendar. As
a wrestler, Spinola was tenacious. As a coach, he was intense. As a judge, he
is, well, smiling. On the bench, Spinola is cordial, friendly and
accommodating. He is less taskmaster, more referee. Once the calendar has been
set, he moves across the hall to Nassau County Supreme Court, Part 21 to
continue hearing cases.
"As a judge, he's very consistent and very fair," said Glenn Sabele, an
attorney with the Long Beach-based Elovich and Adelle. "He understands the
problems you have as a trial attorney because he was a trial attorney. He was
excellent, he had a common-man approach, so juries liked him."
Spinola, 48, grew up in East Meadow. When he was 11, his father, Salvatore,
a New York City police officer, died while trying to rescue someone trapped in
a sewer. That left his mother, Phyllis, to raise Joe, Ralph, who would wrestle
at Syracuse, and his sisters, Domenica and Antoinette. After his father's
death, Joe immersed himself in sports to fill the void.
"I really didn't have anyone to look up to except for my mother," he said.
"My mother was one of those moms who made you feel you could do anything. She
always made us feel we were as good as anyone else. Because of that, I never
felt intimidated by anyone or anything."
Spinola graduated cum laude with University Honors from Hofstra and then
graduated from Hofstra School of Law in 1983. From there, he began a winding
journey to the bench. His expertise is civil law, and he began as an associate
and then moved up to trial lawyer at some of Nassau's best civil law firms.
A self-made career
In 1997, he founded Spinola & Mirotznik, P.C., where he remained an active
litigator until January 2003, when he was elected District Court judge. A year
later, running on the Conservative Party line, he was elected to a seat on the
Supreme Court. His term expires in 2017.
"He's not a creation of the political system," Sabele said. "He got to the
bench without politics. He never had anyone backing him."
The Honorable Joseph P. Spinola was sure these kids had forgotten him. He
coached them for only one season. After failing to win a match the prior year,
Spinola led Woodland to an undefeated, 8-0 season. It was a glorious year,
indeed, but most of those kids had gone on to achieve greater athletic success.
"That season was unbelievable," Spinola said. "I cannot believe what those
kids did. But then I forgot about it. I got busy with my life and my career,
and that was it."
Or, so he thought. Every once in a while, a letter would cross his desk
from one of those wrestlers. The theme was always the same, thanking him for
making a difference in their lives.
"I really didn't think I did anything for them," he said. "I tried to prove
that my coaching philosophy was good. I did that for me."
A special team member
A few years ago, Spinola was having work done at his East Meadow home. When
the contractor completed the job, Spinola was arranging to meet for payment.
"It's on me," he was told.
"Why?" Spinola asked.
"Because of what you did for my brother when you coached at Woodland," came
The contractor was Bobby Madden, and his younger brother, James, wrestled
for Spinola as a seventh-grader. But that wasn't the sibling to whom Madden was
referring. Another brother, Tom, was diagnosed with spina bifida as a child
and was never able to participate in sports. Spinola saw Tom Madden hanging
around the gym and named him team manager. As he did with each kid on that
team, Spinola overlooked the negatives and focused on the positive.
"Initially, I'm not sure we all understood that," Germano said. "At that
age, when you don't understand someone's circumstances, you shy away from it.
But at the end of the season, Tom was one of the guys, cracking jokes along
with everyone else. Joe never told us to treat him any differently."
"He brought me from the outside looking in and he made me part of the
team," said Tom Madden, 43, an accountant for Nassau County. "Because of that
season, I was able to make friends that I kept from high school and beyond
Tom Madden was there alongside all the wrestlers at the reunion in May,
cracking jokes about the old days. Some of the men came from as far away as
South Carolina, Florida and Colorado. They came to pay homage to the man who
put a group of boys on the path to manhood.
"Joe was like God, he was Superman to us," said Michael D'Antonio, who
retired from the Air Force. "He was the ultimate leader. I excelled in the
military, and it's because of the discipline I learned that season."
"He taught us from day one that hard work pays off," said Joe Strycharz,
41, who came in from Ho-Ho-Kus, N.J. "I think all of us still live by that.
Even though he was with us for a short time, he planted a seed in all of us."