At the memorial service for football coach Howard Vogts, who...

At the memorial service for football coach Howard Vogts, who members of the current team passed behind his portrait in respect. (Aug. 12, 2010 ) Credit: Daniel Goodrich

They packed the bleachers at Howie Vogts Field in Bethpage to honor a man who had given them so much in his 56 years as the high school's only varsity football coach. Many wore the gold-and-blue jerseys that have represented Bethpage football for more than five decades and three generations of players.

They came out on a cool, midsummer morning to pay tribute to Howie Vogts, the winningest football coach in state history, who died Saturday of congestive heart failure at Mercy Medical Center in Rockville Centre. Vogts, 80, was an icon in the Bethpage community.

More than 1,000 people, including coaching colleagues, community members and former players, came to say goodbye to the man known by all as "Coach."

Two fire trucks, positioned like bookends, held a large American flag at the entrance to Vogts Field. The field was named in his honor in 1989. The scoreboard read 364 Thursday to reflect Vogts' career wins total during those 56 years.

A bandstand was erected at midfield with his favorite No. 39 jersey for all to see, surrounded by flowers and photos.

"He touched an unprecedented amount of lives and his impact won't be fully felt for years to come in our community," said John Franchi, athletic director for the Bethpage School District. "He said his concerns were to turn boys into men. And he'd know if he did a good job when those boys returned to the community as good fathers and husbands and leaders. . . . It was so much more than football for Howie Vogts. It was about family and community and helping people."

Vogts' first team captain, Joe Cramer, who is 72, drove more than 1,000 miles from Wisconsin to pay tribute to the man he credited with teaching him important life lessons.

"The greatest coach in the world, but so much more than a coach," said an emotional Cramer. "I visited him every year just to see him because I had such respect for the man. He taught us about life. And he instilled those key values of honesty, integrity and compassion for generations."

Cramer's sentiments were echoed throughout the memorial service. Community leaders, school administrators, former coaches, students, friends and family all shared stories. "There were 11 American presidents during his coaching reign," said Bethpage school district Superintendent Terrence Clark. "And you couldn't even count the number of superintendents that went through Bethpage while Howie was the coach."

Clark added, "but Howie Vogts was a superintendent's dream. He established traditions and was a remarkable person. He left us with a challenge in Bethpage to continue to uphold his values and pass them down from generation to generation. It'll be our responsibility to embrace those values."

Vogts guided the Golden Eagles to 35 regular-season league or conference titles, 16 playoff championships and five Long Island titles. His team earned the Rutgers Cup, given to the best team in Nassau County, three times.

His personality, work ethic and friendship left an indelible impression on thousands of lives, and not just his players. Even his fiercest rivals had only good things to say about Vogts. "I knew him for 60 years and we shared many of the same experiences," said former Farmingdale football coach Don Snyder. "His model of success began with teamwork and he was a champion amongst champions and will forever be a part of all of us."

Current Farmingdale coach Buddy Krumenacker may have summed it up best.

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"You either placed your bicycle in the bike rack or had your mom drop you off when you started football here in Bethpage," Krumenacker said. "You walked down those steps at 14 years old as a boy and when you left here at 18 years old, you were a young man. And that was because of his influence and his staff. Coaches have a profound effect on young people. And football gives them a feeling of brotherhood and an identity."

After Krumenacker finished speaking, a police escort led the hearse along Broadway Avenue just behind the south end zone. The cars stopped as the crowd stood and applauded.

Players, past and present, made their way out of the bleachers to walk past the memorial at midfield. Torn and tattered jerseys from all those championship seasons paid a final tribute to the man they love.

"He had two or three thousand sons," said Plainedge football coach Rob Shaver. "His assistant Irwin Dill was the closest he had to a son."

Vogts and his wife, Carolyn Foley Vogts, who died in 1985, had no children.

Dill, who worked with Vogts for 24 years, called him his best friend and mentor.

"He knew how to treat people," Dill said. "Just look around."

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