ITCL coaching: Fathers and sons

Mark and Mike Assion of Jackson-Milton
Mark and Mike Assion of Jackson-Milton

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – In the movie “Field of Dreams”, the main character played by Kevin Costner had a chance to play catch at the end of the film with his dad who had passed away in his youth.  Perhaps, because I lost my own father to cancer when I was young, that scene is a very emotional one personally.  But it can also be emotional for all fathers and sons who have had that opportunity to share in that bond between them.

The ITCL is home to three sets of fathers as coaches and their sons as players, Jackson-Milton’s Mark Assion, his son Mike, Lowellville’s Jeff D’Altorio, his son AJ, and Crestview’s Paul Cusick, and his son Gabe.  This relationship provides each a great opportunity in sharing time, commitments, working together, and teaching.

“I am very proud to have Gabe as a member of our team.  He only started playing football last year as an eighth grader.  He is a hard worker and is a great teammate,” Cusick responded when asked what it personally means to have your son on the team.  “When you’re a coach, it become part of who you are and having your sons involved makes it that much more special. Gabe is a freshmen and my younger son Anthony, (in) sixth grade, is a ball boy.”

“It’s awesome,” Assion said of having his son on the team.  “It’s been tremendous in that since he was little he has been palling around with me.  He was always around, he was ball boy, he was a water boy.  He was always there.”

“It’s great! How many guys get a chance to coach their son,” D’Altorio exclaimed about the privilege.  “Watching him improve from year to year and he’s worked very hard to improve.  That just comes from hard work.”

AJ and Jeff D'Altorio of Lowellville
AJ and Jeff D’Altorio of Lowellville

South Range’s Dan Yeagley also had the opportunity to coach his sons in the past, “I was really blessed to have coached both of my sons, Scott for four years and Luke for one.  I really enjoyed having them around, even though it may have been tough on them, I really liked sharing that part of our lives together.  I have many great memories together with them and wouldn’t trade those for anything.”

And it’s not just the dad that gets to enjoy the closeness, but the son can also appreciate having his father there with him as he prepares for games and learns, “I’ve always liked it,” Mike Assion said.  “Ever since pee-wee’s he has been around.  As a coach he would help me a lot on some subject of football.  I’ve loved it ever since I started playing football, and it’s better with him there.”

“There are always more pros than cons,” AJ D’Altorio added.  “I feel like just the fact of being around him, there are great experiences and great memories we can always share.”

With the father-son relationship in place it only makes sense that they should be on the same page when it comes to how the team should execute their offense, defense, or schemes during the games, “You have somebody that you are use to communicating with,” Assion explained.  “Communication between a coach and his players is undoubtedly the number one key to having any success. “

One of the most dominant dynamics of having a father as a coach means that as the son he will be scrutinized much more so from the coaching dad than any of the other players on a his team.  Both D’Altorio and Assion agreed that is a pitfall for their sons.

“Being the coach’s son, he knows the expectations are very, very high on him,” D’Altorio said.  “Does he get yelled at more than anyone else?  Yes he does.  He will tell you, we expect him to be better than anyone else because his dad is the coach. We have our good days, and we do have bad days.”

“Do we knock heads?  Absolutely, without question” Assion added.  “He thinks being pretty is more important than doing things the fundamental way sometimes.”

One of the obvious negatives for having a son on the your team is that they get to hear all the armchair quarterbacks take aim at dad for any mistakes that the team might have made on a Friday night.  Every play, ever loss is open game for the critics to lambaste.

“The tough part of it is that they hear the negatives as well.  Social media has become part of our culture and people feel that they can say pretty much anything about any topic or anyone.  I have tried to warn my sons about what they will hear and how people will react.  I still feel the positives outweigh the negatives,” Cusick explained.

Paul Cusick, Crestview
Paul Cusick, Crestview

“The worst part of having my son at this age right now and coaching him is definitely social media.  Personally, neither one of us care what anybody says, or thinks about us, we are going to do what we have to do.  But what we worry about is how things that we say, or do, or put out there in any social media can either be misinterpreted or used against us in any sort of manner,” Assion added.

“The first year was rough for him,” D’Altorio said.  “He was still in junior high then, and we went 1 and 9, and he had to hear a lot.  He had to ignore a lot, and he had to keep a lot in.  There were a lot of negative things said about dad and I know he had to hear a lot and take a lot.  But it has made him a stronger person and a tougher person.  Just understanding that that is how life is.”

Of course one of the other pitfalls of having a son on your team is the appearance of favoritism over the other athletes on the squad.  That comes even though a coach was generally a very good athlete, and something that is passed on to their son.

“Every single time you play your son as a freshman, you know good and well that everybody behind you is throwing knives your way.  A lot of that has to do with simply the nepotism issue, ‘he’s only playing because he’s the coach’s son’.  Mike earned his keep.  He was one of our greater athletes on that team,” Assion remarked.

A coaching father also runs the risk of watching your son not be as successful as either would want or even worse, seeing him get injured while playing for you, “We had a scare in the Valley Christian scrimmage.  He took a blow to the side of his knee and had a partial tear in his MCL.  He had a collateral bruise that went in and he had to sit the Southington Chalker game.  It was killing him because this is his senior year.  It’s killing me as his dad because it’s his senior year.  You want your kids on the field to be able to play; you don’t want anybody to have to sit games.”

It is also important that once practice is over, and the teaching and learning is complete, that both leave the football relationship on the field.  It becomes father and son once again as they return home.

“We leave it here. We don’t take it home with us.  That’s one thing that we have always done,” D’Altorio explained.  “When we walk off this field it is over and done.  He understands that.”

“It’s always been dad with him.  I don’t think he has ever called me coach,” Assion said.  “Even on the practice field he will say ‘hey dad I need to talk about this’.  And I’m fine with that.  I have kids on this team that call me dad.  That’s what coaching is about, it’s about foster relationships.  It’s about being a father figure to some of these kids.”

“The dynamic of our relationship has really flourished.  We love each other, and we tell each other we love each other, but we are not going to sit there and communicate about everything,” Assion added.  We use to sit there and watch all kinds of football games and I would stop the game and ask ‘hey Mike what coverage are they in’.  And it grew to be too much.  It put a strain on just a father and son watching a game.  Now we are like ‘oww look at those shiny uniforms’.  The discussion is not on the scheme of the offense or how fierce that hit was.  Our relationship has changed, and I think its better.”

“Mike is a great kid.  He takes care of things in the classroom, takes care of things at home, does what he is supposed to do socially.  He has grown up a lot,” Assion said.

For these three coaches of the ITCL, they are getting that chance to enjoy a game of catch with their sons and vice versa. Something they will cherish for the remainder of their lives.

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