Joe Sullivan, who was head football coach at Stepinac from 1958-71, will be inducted into the school's Hall of Fame tonight. / Frank Becerra Jr./The Journal News
LAKE CARMEL - Sometimes, and probably not often enough, we honor our sports heroes for more than their won-lost records.
Joe Sullivan was 44-57-9 as Stepinac's head football coach from 1958-71, and before that was an assistant coach from the inception of the Crusaders' football program in 1949, a year after the school opened.
The record isn't why Sullivan is going into the Stepinac Hall of Fame tonight.
"Joe Sullivan did what we're supposed to do," said Somers coach Tony DeMatteo, who played for Sullivan at Stepinac and who will introduce him into the Hall tonight. "There's too much today about a kid getting a scholarship, who's going to make it to the pros, who's going to be a millionaire. Joe taught you to be a man and be a winning person, to learn how to work hard so you can be successful in life. He taught that lesson, and that's why so many people love him.
"There's a lot of guys who did not like Joe Sullivan when they played for him, and when you speak about him to those guys today, they'll break down and cry because they know he's the guy who developed them."
Earlier this week, Sullivan, now 84, sat in a chair at his daughter's house, and when DeMatteo's name was mentioned he broke down and cried, too.
"Tony's my favorite," Sullivan said through the tears. "I was so friendly with him. He's my boy, you know? Every time I hear his name, I cry. Good, great kid."
That good, great kid is in his 40th year of coaching football, with more varsity wins than anybody who has ever coached in this area, and more lives touched. Not only that, but DeMatteo has 30 or so disciples - former players and/or assistant coaches - now working as head coaches locally. If DeMatteo is the father of area football, then Sullivan is the grandfather.
"He is Mr. Stepinac football," said Mike O'Donnell, the current Stepinac athletic director and football coach.
He wasn't just football, though.
Sullivan competed in baseball, track and field and football growing up at La Salle Academy in Rhode Island, left school in his senior year to join the Navy for three years during World War II, then went to Georgetown, where he played defensive back with a Buffalo-area native named Buzz Werder.
In 1949, Stepinac hired Werder to be its first football coach, and Sullivan - despite an invitation to try out for the Los Angeles Rams - came with him, as an assistant football coach and head track coach.
Well, he may have actually had more defined success in baseball, which he coached from 1959-67 with three CHSAA championships, and in track, where he had a national champion relay team at the Penn Relays. In 1955, the Werder-Sullivan tandem led Stepinac to the only overall CHSFL football championship in its history, and today the league's "A" division champion gets the Joe Sullivan Award.
"(Sullivan) prepared me as well as anybody could have for college football," said former NFL player Bob Hyland, who like DeMatteo and DeMatteo's brother Don is in Stepinac's Hall of Fame.
"He was extremely, extremely tough. He was a big believer in hitting. ... He believed in the more you hit, the better hitter you became. And we used to have 'animal' drills on Wednesday afternoons and, my God, it was a slugfest. ... It was really a brutal hour of hitting.
"When I went to Boston College, it was almost a relief from what I went through at Stepinac."
DeMatteo backed up the tough-guy image.
"In my junior year I didn't even have a facemask and he'd tell you to put your nose in there," said DeMatteo, who went to Stepinac in part because his cousin, Tony Amendola, was an assistant at the time. "The one thing about Joe, you never could get hurt because no matter what you told him, he'd tell you to run it off. So we never got 'hurt' because nobody wanted to run.
"He felt the best way to learn how to play football is to play football. So we did a lot of hitting."
And a lot of learning on and off the field. On it, DeMatteo took lessons he still uses.
"There are drills that Joe Sullivan did in 1959 that are state-of-the-art today, the agility drills, and the keys," DeMatteo said. "(When) we're in a defense and we call a '55' it's Joe's defense."
Hyland also got to see the softer side, when he and Sullivan worked together at a boys summer day camp together.
"It was kind of funny to see him in that sort of situation, kind of friendly and interesting," Hyland said. "But when football started, forget it."
Sullivan also got the kids' attention with his personal life. His wife, Bernie, was stricken with polio and paralyzed from the waist down just 10 days after delivering her first child, a daughter. Her reproductive system wasn't affected, though, and she and Joe had three more children. So life wasn't easy.
"She was a strong woman," Sullivan said of his late wife.
"She was a great woman," Hyland said, "and she came to all the games, and that scored a lot of points for whoever played for him because you realized, 'Geez, this guy, he walks the walk.' "
Sullivan taught at Stepinac from 1949-87, and when he left, maybe there were some hard feelings. Hyland, a Hall of Fame committee member, said Sullivan has been nominated and elected every year, but for some reason declined to be inducted until now.
"I don't like a lot of publicity," was all he'd say. "I'm not that type of person. So I waited awhile."
DeMatteo said he ultimately helped convince Sullivan to make the decision.
"Hey, listen," Sullivan said. "I learned so much from the kids. And I had a great bunch of kids. Every time I think of them ..."
With that he began crying again, and tonight the dinner hall might be flooded with tears.