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SFP facility honors legendary coach

The Rev. Bill Sweeney (l.-r.), Principal Brother Leonard Conway, Mary O'Connor and Coach Vince O'Connor cut the ribbon on the new SFP fitness center. Photo by Joseph Staszewski
TimesLedger Newspapers

Vince O’Connor has been synonymous with St. Francis Prep football for nearly six decades. The legendary coach has helped mold and influence thousands of lives while becoming one of the state’s most successful coaches.

The Fresh Meadows school found a way to say thank you.

“It’s time that he gets paid back,” said former Rutgers and Bengals tight end Marco Battaglia, who played at St. Francis Prep. “I think his history and what he has done in his lifetime is second to none in my eyes and everyone in this building’s eyes. When it comes time to dedicate something this monumental to a person, there is no better person.”

St. Francis Prep officially opened and dedicated its new fitness center, named in O’Connor’s honor, Sunday afternoon. The 500-square foot, state-of-the art facility is part of the second phase of a $30 million improvement plan that began back in 2008. It also includes the addition of 8,000 square feet of art-specific classrooms at the top of the west wing of the building.

“This is really one of the highlights of my life to be honored by so many people who previously played here at the Prep and have come back,” O’Connor said.

Peter Callahan, the project’s lead benefactor and a 1959 graduate, believed it was appropriate to name the facility after the 81-year-old O’Connor, for whom he played defensive back. A trophy case in the lobby is filled with old photos of O’Connor and past teams, along with championship trophies, newspaper clippings and other awards. Portraits of O’Connor and Callahan also hang there.

“What this facility does is bring the history of the past of the school and the history of the past of the football program together with 2011,” SFP Athletic Director Sal Fischetti said. “It allows the kids now to benefit from all the appreciation these men have that played for Coach back in the [19]50s and ’60s.”

O’Connor is starting his 59th season at St. Francis Prep. He’s won 322 games, 15 CHSFL titles — 13 at the highest classification — and coached nine pros. His grandson — Dylan King — is currently on the Terriers roster. The Terriers, who have fallen on hard times in recent years, beat St. Peter’s Saturday night for their first win of the season.

“It makes us realize about Prep’s history in winning,” senior quarterback Tom Cani said. “It makes us work harder to put the program back on track to where it used to be.”

But more than his victories, O’Connor is respected for the impact he’s had on the lives of his players off the field. He was humbled by the honor and the few hundred people, including family, faculty, alumni and guests, who came out to share the honor with him.

“There’s a lot of alumni here who were just members of the school and knew of the traditions,” O’Connor said. “A lot of people forget their school, but these men and women didn’t.”

The facility itself is a significant upgrade from the “garage” outside the building and the small weight room inside that the students and athletes had at their disposal in the past. Battaglia, who was a member of three straight CHSFL ‘AAA’ title teams, joked that O’Connor used to try to get him into the “garage,” but he would just say he had basketball practice.

The fitness center, adjacent to the school’s gym, features top of the line cardio and weight-lifting equipment along with a Trazor Interactive Fitness Machine. It is the first school in New York state to have it, according to Fischetti. It’s a motion-sensor-based system that provides a sport-specific, high-intensity workout. The football team’s weight room on the ground floor is named after longtime Assistant Coach Frank Nastro.

“It’s spectacular,” Battaglia said. “I took a walk up there earlier with my son and it’s beautiful. It’s a top facility. That’s what you have to do to compete and now we have them and it’s time to get the boys underneath the bench press.”

The Coach Vince O’Connor Physical Education and Athletic Training Center has already been integrated into the school’s PE classes and the art classrooms, some of which feature brand new Macs, are also in use. Principal Brother Leonard Conway said more improvements are planned in the form of a three-story addition that will include new locker rooms along with state-of-the-art music and science facilities.

This day and this addition were about honoring O’Connor’s legacy and the school’s alumni provided something for its current players and students. It was about saying thank you.

“It’s a tribute,” Conway said. “For us it’s very great that he is still alive and it’s not a memorial. People will look at that and they will learn and know the history of St. Francis Prep football. Where can you get a legend like him?”

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