It’s been about a week since the passing of iconic Notre Dame High School football coach, Bill Sutherland. I’ve struggled with how to feel. I’m very disconnected from the NHDS community. I haven’t lived in New York in over 17 years and when I returned last fall to be inducted in the Notre Dame Hall of Fame I felt very much like an outsider looking in. It’s easy to just move on with my life. This man who had a great impact on my life during my formidable years just died, but other than Facebook I don’t see people in my daily life that had any connection to Coach Sutherland. Other than some words on a screen, I don’t really have anyone to share this loss with.
However, over the course of this past week, Facebook posts, and the occasional tweet, have brought memories of a great man rushing back. Former teammates, friends, and my brother have written touching words about what Coach meant to them. I’m not a wordsmith and this won’t compare to some of the others I’ve read, but I write this in the hopes that it will be cathartic.
Coach was not a very big man, but on the football field, he was larger than life. My memories are fading, but I have glimpses of Saturday night’s under lights at Van Detta Stadium, coach pacing the sidelines seemingly in complete control of everything that was happening. We were children not fully understanding anything that was happening beyond the game itself. Hindsight is twenty-twenty and looking back it’s clear that Coach was not just the leader of the team; he was leading us, through football, to be adults. He was preparing us for the adversities that the world would throw at us when we left the bubble of Notre Dame High School.
He had the ability to make you feel small, not in a derogatory way, though he could do that as well, but in a way that you were a part of the team but not more important than anyone else. After you made a bad play, he would yell and scream at you while sunflower seeds were shooting out the gap in his teeth. Then when you corrected your mistake he would lift you up with praise.
Coach loved winning, but beating certain teams meant a lot more than others. Beating Pembroke was always fun, but it didn’t mean as much as some other games. I have this vision of him after a big win, he has a giant shit-eating grin on his face and he’s hugging everyone he can find. I don’t know what game it was, maybe it was Elba, definitely could have been Livonia, but who we beat doesn’t matter. It’s the join and excitement in his face that I will always remember. He loved to win for himself, who doesn’t, but I think he got just as much out of his player’s excitement for a win than is own.
Coach Sutherland gave us a handwritten game plan each week and at the bottom, he would include a quote. I had many of those quotes stapled to the wall in my bedroom, but one specifically that I remember is from Theodore Roosevelt: “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” In recent years this quote regularly comes to the front of my mind as it really sums up my professional career, and I always think of Coach Sutherland. The lessons he taught us while shaping us into young men all come back to working hard at work worth doing. The work Coach did was certainly worth doing and he certainly worked hard at it.
I was fortunate to know Coach off the football field as well. He preached God, Family, Country, School, Football in that order and that’s how he lived his life. I consider his children, Jen and Billy, friends and my heart aches for their loss. When someone as impactful as Coach passes they leave a giant hole, but that hole is filled with all the memories of so many people that he touched.