He was the toughest guy who ever played

Joe Palladino, The Waterbury Republican-American - Wolcott, CT - Frank Vaccarelli was known as a man who didn't like to lose, and Vaccarelli won his last battle. Mesothelioma, the demon, took one of his lungs, but it didn't take his life.

"Upon his first diagnosis, Frank said to the doctor, 'I am going to beat this. Now tell me what I need to do,' "recalled his wife, Susan. When they performed his autopsy, Frank was cancer-free. Although there was an infection in the cavity where they took his lung, there was no cancer."

Attaboy, Frank.

Frank Vaccarelli, died last week at age 70. He was one of the greatest athletes the city of Waterbury has ever produced. Vaccarelli's glory years did not take place in high school, even though it is in high school where most sports legends are formed. Vaccarelli left Wilby High School at age 16 to join the Marines. If ever there was a man who fit the mold of a Marine, it was Vaccarelli.

In 1957 when he came home, the hard-as-nails Vaccarelli enjoyed a spectacular amateur career as both an athlete and a coach. He played semi-pro basketball in Waterbury and Terryville and pro football for the Waterbury Orbits, the one-time professional affiliate of the New York Jets.

Most people will remember Vaccarelli from his days with the Golden Villa Bombers, a legendary fast-pitch softball team. He was a catcher.

Softball Hall of Fame pitcher Joe Bianca said "He was my favorite catcher". "He could have played for any team in the country. I know for a fact that the Raybestos Cardinals (world champions in fast pitch) were eager to have him."

Vaccarelli's most memorable moment as an athlete, however, happened at Municipal Stadium, the night he caught Joan Joyce when she struck out Ted Williams.

"On that night, we didn't put anyone in the outfield," said Vaccarelli for a story that we published last summer. "Ted thought for sure he could hit her. I told him, 'There's no way. Joan can throw you a hundred pitches and you won't hit one.'"

That was some good advice, from one Marine to another Marine.

Frank Vaccarelli came from a generation of athletes and coaches that have all but disappeared from the sports scene. As one sportsman quoted, "Frank never saw a rebound he couldn't get." To emphasize that point, Bill Blair, the former Wolcott High head basketball coach, relates the following story.

Bill began by saying, "I was playing basketball for Croft, 1963 and 1964, and Frank joined us as our junior varsity coach." "Even though he was only 26, he was an icon. There was one game that we didn't rebound well, and Frank decided to run some rebounding drills. He got right in there, but the drills only lasted about 45 seconds. Two guys, whose names I will not mention, backed away." At that point, Blair demonstrated by backpedaling and putting both hands up into the air," and they were like, 'We don't want any part of this guy.'"

Words such as ferocious and tenacious hardly begin to describe the way Vaccarelli played, or the way he coached.

Vaccarelli coached Rickey Harper and Frank Caruso to national championship title games in Pop Warner football. They both came to say farewell at the funeral. In total, Vaccarelli took four teams to national title games.

Harper said, "He was like a father to me." Harper went on to become an all-state track star while at Wilby. "He made me the man that I am today."

Vaccarelli had a strong influence on people. Jim Scully, the former Wolcott High athletic director who initially hired Vaccarelli and who also played softball with him, described Vaccarelli this way: "If you were in a situation where you needed to win a game in the last inning and the winning run was on second base, I wouldn't want Frank at the plate, because he was such a terrific clutch player, or on second base, because he's the guy you needed to run over the catcher."

Vaccarelli coached football for 13 years at Wolcott under head coach Joe Monroe. After that he was the head boys basketball coach for two more years. His locker in the Wolcott coaches' room will remain untouched in honor of him.

One last look into the life and character of Vaccarelli is this: While coaching the Wolcott boys in basketball, he was also battling his cancer.

"Frank would often come home from his cancer treatments, throw up, and then go coach a basketball game," Susan Vaccarelli explained.

"Sometimes we had to carry him out of the gym," Wolcott AD Joe Monroe added. "It was a battle for him to get to practice every day, but being with the kids also brought a sense of relief for him. It took his mind off what he was going through."

His son Matthew offered the most moving tribute. His words made grown men, big and burly, just like Frank, break down into tears. He talked about the love that his father gave to his family as well as to his athletes. "It wasn't always the kind of love I wanted. He taught me to be strong, and not be afraid to fail."

The final words Matthew Vaccarelli offered to his father were: "We will be strong. We will have courage. We will find a way to succeed."

There is absolutely no better description that could be penned for Frank Vaccarelli.

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