Sacco leads Wildcats for last time
WINSLOW—For a few seconds, Paul Sacco couldn’t find the words.
Sacco had just finished coaching St. Joseph Academy’s football team, one he guided for 41 seasons, for the last time.
With his team, their parents and many supporters surrounding him, Sacco addressed his team one final time. A few minutes into it, he paused, glanced down and held back tears that were had waited four months to be shed.
“Life goes on,” he said.
In mid-August Sacco had announced that this would be his last year coaching at St. Joseph. The end came last week, as the Wildcats lost to Winslow 42-17, ending a legendary 41-season run that saw Sacco become the winningest coach in South Jersey history.
Sacco had addressed both his team and the media 437 times in his coaching career, but none was as hard as last week’s talk when the coach reflected on what has been the most successful tenure of any coach in New Jersey history.
“Life goes on,” Sacco told his players.
“It’s time now I get a little bit of a break and spend time with my wife [Peggy] and my dog that I love to death. Spend a little more time with my family. I don’t know where I’ll be down the road,” Sacco said.
In August, Sacco debated whether or not to coach one more season at St. Joe, eventually opting to finish out the year after discussions with players and family.
The decision was not an easy one, but Sacco said he was glad he stayed.
“It’s been an emotional year. It’s been a roller coaster. I say it over and over, I’m glad I stayed with these kids. We weren’t very talented. It’s been a wonderful experience at St. Joe, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. Sometimes things change. I’m proud of the kids,” Sacco said.
The season began with a tough 30-10 loss at St. Augustine Prep, but the Wildcats rebounded to win five-straight before a close loss to Delsea, one of the top-ranked teams in the state. St. Joe would eventually reach the Non-Public B semifinals before last week’s season-ending loss at Winslow.
“We lost that first game and people were saying we might not win any games, and I was thinking the same thing, but we won five in a row and I said these kids have character. I wish we would have played a little better tonight, but it is what it is,” Sacco said.
Sacco’s players all had praise for their coach.
“He really motivates me, I’m not going to lie, because he never gives up. No matter how much is on him, he never gives up. He never folds. He really motivates me. That’s my guy,” senior Richard Chandler said.
“Everybody said this wouldn’t be the same St. Joe’s team, but we battled. Not one game was easy, we came back so many times. I’m just so proud it was a great season. It kills me inside that we couldn’t send the legend out with a win. I wish some things worked out differently, but it was a great year, I wouldn’t change anything for the world,” senior Jimmy Mantuano said.
“I felt honored [that Sacco came back for one last year]. The day I found out [Sacco was leaving] I cried like a baby. It was heart-breaking because I’ve waited so long for this senior season. When I found out he was [coming back], that made my effort three times harder. Every play was for him because I couldn’t thank him enough. His work ethic was off the charts, no coach in South Jersey works harder. He just dedicates so much to the school, to the team. I’ve never seen somebody like that in my life. Him and my dad are the two most dedicated people I’ve seen. He’ll be a role model for me my entire life,” Mantuano said
After talking to his team for the last time, Sacco met with a large group of reporters.
“I can’t believe all you guys came out here tonight,” Sacco joked.
The coach then reflected on a more than four-decade career.
“I got an opportunity to coach under Chuck Donahue, who showed me everything. I never thought I was better than anybody. I’m just a little high school football coach in a little Catholic school in a little tiny town of Hammonton and that’s the extent of it,” he said.
“I was very fortunate to win a lot of football games. I didn’t win them, the kids did,” Sacco said.
“This [last week against Winslow] was one of the toughest days of my life. Ninety-nine percent of my waking hours have been spent at St. Joe’s. Maybe it’s time I get a little bit of a break and spend a little more time with my family,” Sacco said.
The season was a stressful one for Sacco, who worked with a new coaching staff and a small roster filled with inexperienced players.
“We had a whole new staff this year and we lost so many seniors from last year. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but we held together and found ways to win,” Sacco said.
The long season came to an end last week, wrapping up an historic run at St. Joseph.
“Since the first scrimmage driving up to St. Joe Montvale, I dreaded the last day. I really did.
Sooner or later, all good things come to an end and as each day went by some days were hard to practice and other days it wasn’t. But I’m glad I came back and stuck it out and now we’ll see what the future holds,” Sacco said.
In the huddle with his team following the game, Sacco began to talk about how he is often asked to compare his teams to others. He paused and held back tears, then delivered a message that gave a glimpse into what’s made him so successful and respected as a coach.
“I always say ask me in 10, 15 years and see how they develop through life.” Sacco said.