Last Wednesday night my school hosted the Dutchess County Coach’s Association Exceptional Senior game.  Caval Haylett, a senior from Poughkeepsie high school, participated and received an award for being selected for the All County team. He was shot in the head hours later and died the next day.  It has been “5” days since his death, an appropriate day to reflect. All too often, it takes a tragic event like this one to force all of us to rethink how we conduct ourselves as coaches, parents and fans. On this day “5,” I will share my thoughts.

It was not too long ago that I personally had to deal with the tragic loss of my best friend and former teammate Tom Emma. Although the circumstances were completely different, that loss helped me to reset my approach and priorities as a coach. The tragic and senseless loss of Caval brings back all of those same feelings.

Here is an excerpt of what I wrote on the one year anniversary of Tom’s death which happened at the tail end of our Edge season:

“As evident on the website calendar, there will be no Edge basketball practice today. I ask all our parents in our program to give their child an additional hug today, regardless of their age, and remember to keep things in the proper perspective. I also ask that our athletes try to step back and understand all that your parents do for you and how much they love you. And finally, I ask all that are reading this to keep those that are special to you close to your heart and to never take for granted those special people in your life.”

I did not know Caval personally, other than watching him play, coaching against him over the years, and interacting with him at the recent exceptional senior game. His death, however, will forever have an impact on me as a coach and human being.

It is not necessary for me to describe the feeling I have at this moment about Caval and his family, because it is no different from what everyone else is feeling. Coach Brian Laffin and I have known each other for many years and as I recently told him, I am in complete awe of what he does with and for his student athletes over at PHS. In fact, I am intimately familiar with what the entire coaching staff, both past and present, to include Bob Murphy, Pete Sheehan, Tom Mullins, and Matt Hayes, have done over there.

At last night’s Section One dinner, I had the honor of introducing another friend and peer, coach Terry Feeley, as he accepted a service award presented by the Section One’s Coaches Association. Terry briefly spoke to the entire audience but his comments were directed at all of the younger coaches in attendance. He told them that they should avoid chasing the “gold ball,” but rather should focus on providing athletes with a valuable and memorable experience.

I sat and listened to coach Feeley, who I have also been in complete awe of, and was thinking about Caval and the experience he had as an exceptional student athlete under coach Laffin. It did not matter how many games Caval and his team won or lost, nor the amount of points that he scored. What mattered is that he was part of something special…a second family…a team with common goals and individual dreams. He was part of something that was created with him, by him and his teammates, and for him and his teammates.

As coaches, we all need to be reminded of what coach Feeley said. Our job is to provide an environment and experience that our athletes will cherish. It is not always easy to do but we need to do it.

As parents, we all need to know that our kids teammates AND our opponents are all someone else’s son’s and daughter’s. And they should be treated as such and honored and respected for all the hard work they put in and the sacrifices they make.

As fans, we need to recognize that these athletes are special…not only to their parents and loved ones, but to us as well. There is a reason why they are on the court and we are in the bleachers. These athletes work hard to provide us the opportunity to watch high school basketball and our team compete. We get to go home and do what is important to us. The hard work and commitment of these athletes have earned them the right to come back to practice the next day and work even harder. We need to respect that…whether it is our team or not.

But most importantly, we all need to recognize and cherish what we have. Because what we have today can easily be gone tomorrow. So fans, cheer on your team, but respect your teams opponent. Coaches, don’t forget to compliment that kid who isn’t the star because he or she needs a memorable experience too. And parents, remember that basketball and all that goes with it is only a piece of your child’s life experience. Be proud of what they do and love them for who they are.

And for all of the athletes…do not be afraid to tell your parents and family how much you love them and appreciate what they do for you. Go ahead and give them an unsolicitated hug. You have no idea how much that would mean to them.

Thinking of “5”

coach Jim santoro

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