By Joseph Santoliquito
Philadelphia, PA (CBS)—Everyone had cleared out by then and it was just him, a solitary figure in the early morning chill picking up empty cardboard lunch boxes and toting armfuls of them over to a dumpster. Then he made one more inspection of the empty team bus and pulled out more debris. He missed nothing. He usually doesn’t.
But there was one more thing St. Joseph’s Prep coach Gabe Infante had to get before he closed the most memorable coaching day of his life—the PIAA state championship trophy.
It doesn’t surprise his players that Infante was the last one there at The Prep hours after the buses arrived back from Hershey Monday morning, picking up trash following the Hawks first state football title in school history.
Just like it’s difficult for Hawks’ junior star John Reid to proclaim if it wasn’t for Infante, the Hawks wouldn’t have steamrolled over previously undefeated Pittsburgh Central Catholic, believed to be the best team in the state, 35-10 in the Class AAAA state championship Sunday night at Hersheypark Stadium.
“Coach Infante says the program’s success involves all of us, we’re all invested, no one part is greater than the other,” Reid said. “He preaches to us about sacrifice and there was a lot of sacrifice that in the end made it all worth it. We’re grateful for everyone in our program. We know we need every single person in the program to succeed. No one is bigger than the team. Coach Infante wouldn’t want to take any credit for anything.”
Infante wouldn’t, so we’ll give it to him, as Coach of the Year in Southeastern Pennsylvania. It’s an honor he’ll add along with being named AP’s Class AAAA Coach of the Year in the state, after guiding the Hawks to a 12-3 history-making season.
On the path to winning the first state title at The Prep, the Hawks won their first Catholic League championship since 2005 and first city championship since 1977 (though it has to be noted that the city series was suspended from 1980-2007, until the Public and Catholic Leagues revived it upon entry into the PIAA).
Whether it’s breaking down film or cleaning a parking lot by himself, Infante is unwavering. On display as he reached for each scattered box was Infante’s meticulous nature. And his immense capacity to nurture.
“That doesn’t surprise me at all about coach Infante,” said Hawks’ all-state offensive junior tackle Jon Daniel Runyan, who played his best game of the season going both ways in the second half of the state championship. “That’s the kind of guy he is, he cares about everything. He’s very hands on. I know why he picked up trash in the parking lot after the buses got back—because he knew if he didn’t do it, it would have been left to someone else. That’s not like him to leave something for someone else to do—and nothing is above or beneath him.
“He tries to find every little mistake you make and it benefits you. You take the beatings in practice and it translates into wins on Fridays and Saturdays. You don’t want him to yell at you, and he will yell at you if you mess up. But you also know when he does, it comes from love, because he wants you to do better. On our first day back after the state title, he talked to us immediately about the second phase—our academics. To him, it’s more than just about being a better football player, it’s about being a better person.”
The devotion Infante elicits from his players emerged during the state title game. When defensive lineman Steve Robinson went down in the first half, an offensive line coach told Runyan at halftime that coach Infante wanted to see him.
“I thought I did something wrong,” recalled Runyan, laughing. “But coach Infante pulled me aside and told me that they needed me on the defensive line the second half. I needed help, a lot of help. But I didn’t want to let coach Infante down. I was willing to run through a wall for him.”
Instead, Runyan ran through Central Catholic for 3½ tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble.
Hawks’ all-state quarterback Chris Martin, who’s headed to Johns Hopkins, says he wouldn’t have blossomed into the player he became his senior year. Martin transformed from a game manager to a game changer this season, throwing for a record three touchdown passes in a Class AAAA state title game.
“There’s no way I would be the quarterback that I was without coach Infante,” Martin said. “He knows how to handle almost every situation. He’s completely centered on all of his main goals. All you need to know is that everyone around him will do anything for him. There were times at practice when he’ll get on you, and he certainly got on me, but at the end of the day, it is like one of your parents getting on you.
“We’re a close group and that’s a credit to coach Infante. He genuinely cares about his players and the school. We see that. He taught me not just everything I know about football, but about life. It’s why I would tell any freshman who is discouraged with football, just stick with it, you will learn a lot from coach Infante about life.”
Infante cringes when he hears accolades. He doesn’t want to hear about players willing to run through walls for him, or actually giving him any credit. It makes him uncomfortable.
“I don’t want them to do anything for me; I try to remove myself from the equation because it’s their team—not my team,” stressed Infante, a ping of emotion in his voice. “I know these kids love me. I don’t need them to tell me that. Even the days when I’m not in school, they text me. I don’t want them to worry about me. I know I provide a lot of comfort for them. I understand that.
“I want them to view me as a father, as a brother, and at my worst and at my best, not any more special than they are. Each one of these kids is a gift from God to me. But I don’t ever want it to be about me. You can’t talk it, you have to live it. You have to be genuine. Be who you say you are to them. You can’t fool kids. I try to be me, all my faults and feelings. I want them to see me as imperfect as I am.”
They usually have to look pretty hard.