No matter how completely sports and society changed between 1946 and 1981, there was one constant in Center Moriches. Whenever people mentioned "Coach," fellow locals knew they were talking about Howard Heckman.
Heckman was a fixture in the small community, winning Suffolk high school championships in three sports, compiling a 381-84-38 record with five county and 17 league titles in soccer, earning induction to the Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame, and having the school's soccer field named for him. He died Wednesday at his Westhampton home after a long illness. He was 91.
"He put Center Moriches on the map," said his son Howard Jr. "For some reason, he just loved the kids in that school, working-class kids. He could communicate with them."
It was not warm and fuzzy communication. "There was nothing soft-shoe, there was no painting a rosy picture," said Paul Gibson, who played soccer and baseball for Heckman and went on to pitch for the Detroit Tigers, Mets and Yankees. "I remember once coming back to the bus after getting my butt kicked as a sophomore and he made it very clear to me that all the press clippings were going to be the end of me if I didn't do something about it.
"When I get together with the guys I played with, it's still Howie Heckman time," Gibson said, referring to the lore of the coach's discipline and wry humor. "He taught us how to be men. We had to grow up first before we could compete.
Heckman was a multisport high school star in Islip, his son said, setting the Long Island high-jump record one spring while also playing for the baseball team. He was the captain of the baseball and basketball teams at Hofstra, and graduated with a degree in aeronautical engineering.
Center Moriches was the only school that offered him a full-time job, and he remained loyal. He coached soccer, basketball and baseball and served as athletic director. Just before he retired, he coached girls basketball and launched the career of Sue Wicks, who became the women's national player of the year at Rutgers University before playing professionally.
Along with Howard Jr., Heckman is survived by his son Fred of Westhampton; a sister, Elma Lobaugh of Islip; seven grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. Audrey, his wife of 65 years, died in January.
A religious service will be held 9:30 a.m. Saturday at Sinnicksons Moriches Funeral Home, Center Moriches. Interment will be at Mount Pleasant Cemetery, East Moriches.