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Thursday, June 9, 2011

A coach everyone loved

We were in the middle of doing our All-County teams for the 2005 spring season at the Palatka Daily News. And in June -- and after the seniors had already been given their diplomas -- we had one more honor to give out.

That was for boys weightlifter of the year. So on a June afternoon, it fell on me to head down to Crescent City Junior-Senior High School to take pictures on my dinky little digital camera of the young man who earned the honor, Shontae Hill, who had just graduated.

I knew Shontae very well from seeing most of Crescent City's football games that fall. He was a fullback and linebacker on the team that won its district championship in surprising fashion and went on to the state playoffs, where the Raiders lost to Cross City Dixie County, 33-12, at home after the game was tied at 12 at halftime.

There were very few people at Crescent City this day, and so I walked into the weight room where Shantae was waiting to do some lifting and get his picture taken, while his head coach, Al Wisnoski, was there to supervise and make sure things were right.

Not only was Wisnoski Hill's weightlifting coach that spring, but he had been an assistant coach with the football team the previous three years he was with the team. I came to learn that if Al Wisnoski thought the world of you, he could throw zingers at you and you could take them.

"Show him the form you fooled people with to get to state," Wisnoski joked when we first started.

"You know you've got him lifting a weight he's not good at lifting," he jokingly zinged Hill with while telling me.

This went on during the pictures. Poor Shontae. I still don't know how he made it through without cracking up. Even after the pictures had been taken, he was still getting massacred by Wisnoski, who had just been named the new head coach of the football program that fall.

"We're going to do all right this year," Wisnoski began. Then directing his comments at Hill, he said, "Of course, a big step in that is we don't have to carry this guy around anymore."

All Hill could do was smile. After being showered with accolades by his weightlifting coach, he could handle being playfully hammered (if there is such a term) by the same man.

That's because Al Wisnoski would shower him with more accolades on his season and his time with him later on that night with me.

The truth of the matter was that Al Wisnoski loved all the kids that worked hard in his programs, whether it was weightlifting, baseball, basketball or football. And the ones who didn't work as hard as they should have were prodded by the man to go the little extra.

And here's something that may surprise you unless you were a student, student-athlete, teacher, administrator anyone close to Crescent City Junior-Senior High School -- everyone loved Al Wisnoski.

In 2005, Wisnoski took over the football program from a man who was one and done. Brad Waggoner, a Georgia guy who had come down to coach the Raiders and lead them to that district championship, had seen an opportunity to coach at a bigger school in Alabama and bolted almost immediately after the season had ended. All the while, I remember asking Waggoner if he was going to stay at Crescent City and he kept telling me he would be back, literally telling me of the things he couldn't wait to do with the returnees for that next fall.

But being closer to home was the one caveat, and when he saw the chance to get closer to home, Waggoner took it. And it meant Wisnoski got the opportunity to be the head coach of a program he had been with on and off since 1976. That's loyalty when you have been with a program that long and never the head guy and have coached under at least half a dozen men.

The 2005 season had the same vibe as the 2004 season, but the Raiders did not win a district title. The Villages, a new school, beat the Raiders and took the district title away. But, still, in his first year with the Raiders, Wisnoski got the team to the state tournament before losing at Riley Cooper-led Clearwater Central Catholic, 35-7.

To show you the kind of determination the Raiders had that season -- and how they quickly fit into the Wisnoski mold -- the offensive line averaged from one end to another about 190 pounds each, and that, I think, was being generious. What football team do YOU know has a center that's 140 pounds? That was the size of senior Patrich Buenaventura, whose heart will always be bigger than the body he lives in.

The hardest times as a reporter to deal with Al Wisnoski -- with any coach really -- was when they were losing. And the year after they went to the state for the first time under Wisnoski, they suffered badly. Their offense wasn't very good and they were losing games they had chances to win if they had even a remote hint of offense. Al and I did not get off on the best of terms that year when he approached me and thought it was wrong when under "What Will Crescent City miss?" I put down running back D.J. Johnson, a 1,000-yard rusher and two-year veteran of the team who was having grades problems.

He berated me for that, telling me that these were still high school kids and that we shouldn't be treating them like they were bigger than that. And he had a small bit of a point -- he, too, was a sports writer for quite some time for the local newspaper in southern Putnam County, the Courier Journal. But I simply told him his absence was going to affect what the Raiders did offensively and it turns out, it REALLY hurt without having Johnson in the backfield that year as the team went 3-7.

But even after all that -- and the season was over -- I had to do a follow-up story on the future of the program. And almost two weeks after the season was over, Wisnoski was downright elated. He was quite excited about the next year. Why?

"Our JV team went unbeaten and we have a good amount of talent that will return next year," he said.

Again, keen insight by the man was straight forward. The 2007 Raiders went 10-0, the first time a Crescent City team went the regular season unbeaten in 39 years. They had an amazing amount of talent, including three young men who would go on to play college football at the Division I level -- Toshmon Stevens at Florida State, Tyree Glover at Duke and Andre Addison at Jacksonville. All three would earn Putnam County Player of the Year honors between 2007-09.

The 2007 and '09 teams went to the state playoffs, the '07 team as district champion, the '09 team as a district runnerup in a year where most so-called experts had the Raiders picked last in the district. The Raiders lost first-round games to Clearwater Central Catholic (this time at home) in '07 and at Jacksonville Trinity Christian in '09, but had established themselves as a solid program under Wisnoski.

However, even as they were having a stellar '09 season, I could see the trembling the man suffered via Parkinson's -- I had seen this 15 years earlier with my own uncle -- was increasing. And soon, his diabetes was taking a toll. He would become confined to a wheelchair, but he was the same wonderfully nice man that I first got to know in 2005 when he took over the program and even after he stepped down at the end of the '09 season, he would be there in his wheelchair watching the game intently from the stands with his lovely wife, Vicki, by his side.

The last time I saw Al Wisnoski was in March. He and Vicki were in Publix in Palatka doing some shopping. He was going through the aisles when he caught me and said hello. He was in a motorized mini-buggy and we were just talking about various things. I asked how he was doing, especially having a couple of surgeries not that long ago, and he was in good spirits.

He then asked me to grab something from the top shelf, which I did and it suddenly occured to me -- even as I did the favor for him with a smile and said, "You're welcome" to him after he thanked me -- that we may not have him here much longer. I felt his helplessness of a simple task that would have been done without problem a year or so ago.

I always made it my business this spring to ask how he was feeling when I did get him on the phone and he never once complained about his condition, even if it sounded like he was struggling. I can admit now that after all the phones calls I made, mainly to talk to Vicki, who was the school's girls tennis coach until she stepped down at the end of this season, I really did not want to see this kind, gentle man suffer anymore.

And so it was on Tuesday, May 31, when I needed to talk to his wife about All-County tennis -- an All-County team that all seven positions belonged to Crescent City -- she called back late from the Gainesville hospital where he was staying to tell my boss (because I went out to grab something to eat) that her husband of 34 years had passed that evening at the age of 58.

I knew the ending was expected. I just didn't know it would come that quickly.

They are having a memorial service/celebration on Friday, June 10, at Crescent City's football field to honor this kind man. I'm sure that many people will be there to tell stories of the 35 years this New York state transplant served in Crescent City as a teacher, dean, guidance counselor, coach and leader of young people.

And I'm sure if Patrich Buenaventura were there, he would remember how this man believed in his abilities to play center at such a small size for a district runnerup.

I'm also sure if Shontae Hill were there, he'd be lovingly talking about his football and weightlifting mentor and all the good times he had with him.

But he'd really miss those zingers from the man.

Poor Shontae.

And everyone who loved Al Wisnoski.

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