My high school baseball coach died from complications of Covid-19.
Even though I graduated 25 years ago, I continue to carry with me what I learned from him.
Fred Gallo is what you would call a transformational coach. He was the baseball coach at Iona Preparatory School in New Rochelle, NY and a coaching legend in the Catholic High School Athletic Association.
He was unlike anyone you have ever met in life. Coach Gallo was one of those rare individuals who was fascinating, intimidating, compassionate, and hysterical all in the same breath. He knew how to command a room with his affable presence and powerful voice that was distinct in every aspect of the word. Iona Prep’s Athletic Director, Bernard Mahoney, eloquently called Coach Gallo a character that could only have been created by Damon Runyon.
Coach Gallo subscribed to an “old school” coaching style but staunchly believed in regularly going out and participating in sports. He wasn’t impressed by analytics or deep conversations on current techniques. He regularly scoffed at these notions and muttered a few choice words.
Coach was an artist who used the English language, facial expressions, and hand gestures to create his masterpieces. He was witty, razor sharp, and had an innate sense of comedic timing. Alumni often reflected with great warmth on their favorite “Galloism” or the endless nicknames he had for ball players and coaches.
He was a hitting savant who would leave many in awe with his natural talent and athletic abilities well past the age of 50. The former Milwaukee Braves farmhand and New York Mets scout was also a highly distinguished soccer and basketball referee for three decades at the high school and collegiate levels. He was immensely respected for his passion, work ethic, and vast knowledge.
Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot by watching.”
Coach Gallo was always about faith, family, and friendship. Ball players learned far more about friendship, loyalty, kindness, responsibility, and yes, field maintenance from Coach Gallo than baseball. He was teaching his greatest lessons without even knowing it and they usually didn’t involve a bat or a ball. Everyone carefully observed his interactions with coaches, umpires, opponents, students, and families. There was always a genuine respect, honesty, and friendly rapport–amid the occasional yelling episode at the expense of his ball players.
Coach Gallo was a teacher, confidante, and a pivotal person in the lives of young men who were struggling with the pressures of being a teenager. At a time of awkwardness, immaturity, and insecurity, Coach Gallo helped ease the tension through humor while teaching accountability.
As we are learning firsthand, there isn’t a manual to successfully navigate life during a crisis. In 1999, I was an assistant coach on the Iona Prep baseball team when Nicholas Ciccone, an outstanding young man and ball player, tragically died in an automobile accident at the age of 16. I watched Coach Gallo deftly help the community navigate the profound grief and anger by simply being himself. He was a shoulder to cry on and the first to give you a hug at exactly the right time. Sometimes, it’s simply gut instinct to be of service to others and the ability to be human. Coach Gallo was the embodiment of both traits at a time of unimaginable sadness.
Coach Gallo won 537 ball games, 12 league titles, five Archdiocesan titles, and two CHSAA Class AA championships during his three decades at Iona Preparatory School. He was instrumental in the development of several young men who played collegiate and professional baseball and became the unofficial “beloved uncle” to nearly all his former ball players.
But the true testament to Coach Gallo’s legacy isn’t the titles, CHSAA Hall of Fame induction or three-time Coach of the Year honors. It is the impact he had on generations of young men who went on to lead lives of meaning and substance.
As we all spend time reflecting on life during our quarantine, it is critically important for coaches to reassess their philosophies in a rapidly changing world. What does it mean to be a coach? Am I making deep connections with my athletes? Am I properly preparing them for the next phases of their lives?
Coaches have the opportunity to provide athletes with meaningful moments that naturally evolve into a lifetime of learning and friendship. They broke the mold when it came to Fred Gallo, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn a lesson or two from his unique and authentic style.
Fred Gallo died on April 10. He was 79 years old.
Rest in peace Coach. Thanks for teaching me the true meaning of friendship.
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