On my way home tonight, I was saddened to hear news that Rob Szymanszek, the former and longtime Maloney football coach, died of brain cancer at his home Thursday at age 57.
Please visit Szymanszek’s hometown paper, the Record Journal of Meriden, which has been hard at work putting together this tribute section. For those of you who knew him, or those of you like me who only talked to him a few times but feel like you’ve known him forever, it’s worth the visit to post your thoughts.
I barely knew Rob, which is to say I knew of him until one June summer’s day in 2006. while I was leaving Middletown after doing interviews at the Governor’s Cup all-star football practice.
Without getting into too much detail, I was feeling pretty down, kind of out of it and not paying attention to my job because I was utterly heartbroken. And here comes this guy, just walking around and smiling like he didn’t have a care in the world.
I recognized him as the former Maloney football coach who I had seen around CIAC football luncheons. knew he had been sick, but wasn’t sure of what. He introduces himself, we get to talking and, I guess he had an idea of who I was the same way I knew who he was but that was it.
Anyway, after we talked for a few minutes, he started telling me this gutwrenching story about his battle with cancer–how he blacked out on the highway not 5 years earlier, and found out it was cancer, how he had survived and changed his whole outlook on life.
Things just seemed so much different to him. Trivial and inconsequential stuff he worried over didn’t bother him anymore, but how he now cherished other little things, like summer days outside, moments with his wife or his family.
I found myself mesmerized by this man. He smiled as he talked about how he was still fighting cancer, that a book about his life that he had written with Record-Journal sports writer Bryant Carpenter wasn’t getting the attention they had been hoping to get from publishers.
But then he smiled again and said he didn’t worry about it. He was sick, but taking each day as it came and remained confident he would make it. In the meantime, he made sure to tell people how he felt about them, made sure to do things for them and be just… selfless.
That, he said, is where true happiness is found.
Without even thinking, I just blurted out all of my troubles to this guy I had known for only 15 minutes. He listened and, without giving me a solution, spoke softly and comforted me with kindness in a way only my grandfather could. He just reiterated his outlook on life, and how I should look at my problems in a different way and make the best of the obstacles they posed..
More than a half hour later, I finally pulled myself away, but I walked away smiling.
I can honestly say, my conversation with Rob Szymaszek before I left helped me get through my troubles with spirits soaring.
I’m thankful for that moment I had with Rob.
When Connecticut Post editor Jim Smith, who knew Szymaszek from his time as the Record-Journal, told me the coach had taken a turn for the worst last month, that conversation flooded my thoughts again and I realized how thankful I was for that moment a year ago.
I barely knew Rob Szymaszek, but like some guardian angel, he sure made a difference in my life.
I’ll always remember my conversation with the man, who was so full of life it made you appreciate yours so much more than you did only minutes before.
My thoughts and prayers go out to the Szymaszek family. Connecticut lost not just a great coach, but a great person.