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Tom Flatley, recipient of prestigious lacrosse award, has touched scores of lives as coach, mentor

Tom Flatley, retired varsity lacrosse and football coach,

Tom Flatley, retired varsity lacrosse and football coach, smiles as he and former player Vincent Sombrotto embrace during a celebration at Leo's in Garden City honoring Flatley's lifetime dedication to lacrosse on Saturday, Aug. 24, 2019. Credit: James Escher

Tom Flatley spent decades guiding the Sewanhaka lacrosse team, Garden City football and junior varsity lacrosse teams. After he received the U.S. Lacrosse Lifetime Achievement Award, his former assistants, players and their families had the chance to thank him.

Vincent Sombrotto, who is a member of the U.S. Lacrosse Hall of Fame committee and played for Flatley on the 1982 U.S. lacrosse team that won a gold medal, presented Flatley with the award at Leo’s in Garden City on Aug. 24.

“Parents are really putting their kids in a guy’s hand and they could never have been in better hands than Tom Flatley’s,” Sombrotto said to a crowd of about 200. “He is clearly a man of integrity. He is the kind of guy you want your sons to be around because they will learn so much from him.”

The award is typically given at a ceremony during the fall in Baltimore, but Flatley would not be able to make it due to serious health complications.

Flatley, 79, has stage 4 pancreatic cancer and was hospitalized on July 4 with anaplasmosis. The setback was caused when he was bitten by a tick, which shut him down for a month, Flatley said.

During his monthlong stay in a Glens Falls hospital, Flatley received an overwhelming amount of support in the form of phone calls, texts and hundreds of letters from former players, coaches and colleagues.

Most letters thanked Flatley for serving as a role model, mentor and most important, a friend. Dave Ettinger, who is the current Garden City football coach and a friend of Flatley’s, said his ability to lead is his most impressive quality.

“Wins and losses are important, but he is also trying to make great young men,” Ettinger said. “There is nothing better than seeing your kids being successful in college and then successful in the work force.”

Flatley certainly won a lot more games than he lost. 

Flatley won a Long Island boys lacrosse championship at Sewanhaka in 1981 and was 114-18 in seven seasons there. He also spent a combined 30 seasons as the junior varsity coach at Sewanhaka and Garden City, including a 300-29-1 record in 22 seasons with the Trojans’ JV.

He spent time as the general manager for the U19 team from 1988-2012, winning seven world titles. Flatley was also the general manager for the New York Saints indoor team and coached at the club level.

“Lacrosse has taken me to a lot of places that I never really would've gone to,” Flatley said. “I certainly wouldn't have gone to Japan without lacrosse and three times to Australia. I got to meet a lot of good guys who coach in different parts of the country and got to know them better.”

Steve Finnell, who played and coached football and lacrosse for Flatley, said the coach has quick quips and a great sense of humor that was never out of touch.

During the 2009 Nassau County semifinals, Carey was driving against Garden City, which rarely happened that season. Through 10 weeks, the Trojans never surrendered a touchdown. But Finnell urged Flatley to send a blitz in order to slow down Carey. Finally, Flatley obliged and sent the blitz. The result? A touchdown.

Flatley turned to Finnell and asked him if he had any more “bright” ideas.

Garden City went on to win the game, 21-19, and it is something Finnell said he would never forget.

“He didn't yell and scream, it was in a way that only he could deliver it,” Finnell said. “I think it was a nice way for him to tell me to close my mouth a little bit.”

There are many fond memories from Flatley’s coaching career, but there won’t be any more made from the sidelines. Battling cancer, this past Garden City JV lacrosse season was the final one in Flatley’s coaching tenure.

“It’s been hard,” Finnell said. “He has touched so many people’s lives and he has been so important to me personally and to so many people … It kind of gives me a little second to pause and think about the impact he has had on my life.”

Flatley lives on the second floor of  the house of his daughter, Christine Bellocco. Bellocco said the amount of lessons that he has taught his son, Michael, and daughter, Sophia, are priceless.

“People always say he is lucky he had someone to move in with and take care of him,” Bellocco said. “But I feel like we are the lucky ones because my children see what hard work and dedication can bring you in life. That is a gift for them and long after he is gone, that is what they are going to remember. They are so incredibly proud of him.”

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