Staples coach Marce Petroccio spent much of the early stages of the Fairfield County Chapter of the National Football Foundation-College Hall of Fame’s Scholar-Athlete banquet at the Continental Manor in Norwalk, nervously going over a couple of pages of notes of a speech he had written.
Petroccio has given perhaps thousands of speeches in his lifetime — many of them bellowing and improvised to a few dozen young men in a locker room.
But this one was going to be different. It was going to be an emotional speech. A special one.
It was a tribute to his high school coach, mentor and friend, Trumbull’s Jerry McDougall.
As many in the banquet hall knew, McDougall, easily one of Connecticut’s greatest football coaches, has been seriously ill for the past few months. In honor of all that McDougall has done for Connecticut football, the Fairfield County chapter was bestowing the 76-year old coach its Lifetime Achievement Award.
Given McDougall’s health, the chapter decided to give him the honor early in the evening, alongside his good friend and former St. Luke’s football and basketball coach Dick Whitcomb, who received the chapter’s Distinguished Service Award.
As McDougall took his seat in back, Petroccio at first struggled to push the words describing his coach, mentor and friend from the paper to his lips.
But he got on a roll and finished his tribute, which included a humorous fable about McDougall’s miraculous healing powers (something about atomic balm, gauze and a mummifying wrap to cure Petroccio’s pulled groin in 1975) .
“I’ve never met a man who exemplifies the words ‘honesty,’ ‘integrity,’ and courage the way Coach does,” Petroccio said. “…Coach exemplifies the word ‘class,’ and all of us who play this great game should honor him by striving to perpetuate his standard of excellence, both on and off the field.
“As we get older, myself mostly, I find the things I thought were so important when I was young aren’t all that important any more. Now I value friendships that I’ve made and the people that have touched my life and a lot of peoples’ lives in this room. People like Jerry McDougall.
“I love Coach McDougall. He’s the greatest friend anyone could ever have. He loves his family, he loves football, he loves people and he loves life. And there will never be anyone like him.”
Afterward, Petroccio said, “I’ll tell you. That was tough.”
It was for many of us in attendance who know, respect and love Coach McDougall and what he’s done for the community for 50 years.
Born and raised in Bridgeport, McDougall started his illustrious coaching career at Central Catholic in 1961. Six years later, went to Trumbull and changed that school forever, coaching football, baseball, track and ran the athletics department for more than three decades. He retired from football in 1997 as the all-time winningest coach in state history, 265 wins, 126 losses, 9 ties.
He continued on as the baseball coach for a few years more and intended to retire with his wife Loretta after the 2001 season.
In a cruel twist, Loretta contracted acute Leukemia that year. She died two months after McDougall’s baseball team lost to Stamford in the Class LL baseball championship game.
McDougall, who filled the emptiness left by his wife’s passing by coaching baseball at Trumbull for another four seasons before retiring for good in 2005, now carries the same disease that took her life.
Until the diagnosis a few months ago, McDougall kept busy. With his faithful Black Labrador, Coach, at his side, McDougall took trips to his summer home in Cape Cod, to Boston for Red Sox games, and New York, where his son Jerry is a police officer.
He religiously followed his former players — like Oakland A’s pitcher Craig Breslow — and, of course, he was a fixture at Trumbull football and baseball games. He has remained an active member of the Connecticut High School Coaches Association and has been a strong voice in the revival of the Fairfield County Chapter. McDougall also took up coaching again, as an assistant at St. Luke’s for the last two seasons.
The crowd at the Continental gave McDougall a standing ovation. After a few words from Whitcomb, McDougall tearfully thanked his friends and colleagues, paraphrasing Lou Gehrig and Jim Valvano, who had both given immortal speeches before succumbing to terminal disease.
“I’m the luckiest man in the world,” McDougall said, channeling Gehrig.And then Valvano, “This disease can destroy everything, but it can never take my heart. It ain’t going to happen.”
McDougall spoke for a few more minutes, congratulating the football players at the head of the banquet hall. And, of course, he treated the crowd with few cracks of his famous dry wit before the end.
“I love you all,” McDougall said.
Bassick High School’s Kathy Silver, who has donated her time to take photos for the chapter, also took some great footage of Jerry’s speech.
Watch the highlights below.
Scholarship Award Winners:
Ned Hemmerle, Wilton – Ralph DeSantis Scholarship
Matthew Trager, New Milford – President/Alumni Scholarship
Nick Adzima, St. Joseph – NFL Scholarship
Chris Valenti, Bethel — Whitcomb Scholarship
Tadhg Hannon, Stratford – McDougall Scholarship
Also honored by the Fairfield County Chapter Tuesday night were the following individuals.
FCIAC Coach of the Year
Joe Della Vecchia, St. Joseph
SWC Coach of the Year
John Murphy, Masuk
FCIAC Assistant Coach of the Year
Chris Sadler, St. Joseph
SWC Assistant Coach of the Year
Al Ferraro, Stratford
Football Officials Awards:
FCIAC – Ed Rooney
SWC — Michael Fagan