Frank Vaccarelli was a man who didn't like to lose. Vaccarelli won his last battle. The demon, mesothelioma, took one of his lungs, but it didn't take his life.
"When he was first diagnosed, Frank said to the doctor, 'I am going to beat this. Now tell me what I have to do,' " recalled his wife, Susan. "When they performed his autopsy, Frank was cancer-free. There was an infection in the cavity where they took his lung, but there was no cancer."
Frank Vaccarelli, who died last week at 70, was one of the greatest athletes the city of Waterbury has ever produced. Vaccarelli's glory years did not take place in high school, and it is in high school where most sports legends are formed. Vaccarelli left Wilby High School when he was 16 to join the Marines. If ever there was a man who fit the mold of a Marine, it was Vaccarelli.
When he came home in 1957, the hard-as-nails Vaccarelli enjoyed a spectacular amateur career as 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 will likely remember Vaccarelli from his days with the legendary fast-pitch softball team, the Golden Villa Bombers. He was a catcher.
"He was my favorite catcher," said softball Hall of Fame pitcher Joe Bianca. "He could have played for any team in the country. I know for a fact that the Raybestos Cardinals (world champions in fast pitch) wanted him badly."
But perhaps Vaccarelli's most memorable moment as an athlete happened at Municipal Stadium, the night he caught Joan Joyce when she struck out Ted Williams.
"We didn't put anyone in the outfield," Vaccarelli recalled for a story we ran last summer. "Ted thought for sure he could hit her. I told him, 'There's no way. She can throw you a hundred pitches and you won't hit one.'"
Some good advice, from one Marine to another.
Vaccarelli came from a generation of athlete and coach that has all but disappeared from our sports scene. As one sportsman said of him, "Frank never saw a rebound he couldn't get." To amplify that point, Bill Blair, the former Wolcott High head basketball coach, tells this story.
"I was playing basketball for Croft, 1963 and 1964, and Frank joins us as our junior varsity coach," recalled Blair. "He was only 26, but even then he was an icon. There was one game that we didn't rebound well, and Frank was going to run some rebounding drills. He gets right in there, but the drills 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 into the air, "and they said, 'We don't want any part of this guy.'"
Ferocious and tenacious are words that don't even begin to describe the way Vaccarelli played, or the way he coached.
Rickey Harper and Frank Caruso came to say farewell at the funeral. Vaccarelli coached them both to national championship title games in Pop Warner football. In fact, Vaccarelli took four teams to national title games.
"He was like a father to me," said Harper, who went on to become an all-state track star at Wilby. "He made me the man I am today."
Vaccarelli had that kind of influence on people. Jim Scully, the former Wolcott High athletic director who first hired Vaccarelli and who played softball with him, described the man this way: "If you had to win a game in the last inning and the winning run was on second base, I don't know if I would want Frank at the plate, because he was such a great clutch player, or on second base, because he's the guy you would want to run over the catcher."
Vaccarelli coached football at Wolcott under head coach Joe Monroe for 13 years and then was head boys basketball coach for two more. His locker in the Wolcott coaches' room will remain untouched in tribute.
If you need one last glimpse into the life of Vaccarelli, try this: While he coached the Wolcott boys in basketball, he also battled his cancer.
"He would come home from his cancer treatments, throw up, and then go coach a basketball game," Susan Vaccarelli recalled.
"There were times when we had to carry him out of the gymnasium," Wolcott AD Joe Monroe added. "It was a battle for him to get to practice every day, but I think it was also a sense of relief for him to be with the kids. It took his mind off what he was going through."
The most moving tribute came from son Matthew. His words made grown men, big and burly, just like Frank, break into tears. He talked about the love that his father gave to his family, and to his athletes. "It wasn't always the kind of love you wanted. He taught me to be strong, and how not to be afraid to fail."
So Matthew Vaccarelli said these final words to his father: "We will be strong. We will have courage. We will find a way to succeed."
No better description could be penned for Frank Vaccarelli.