September 15, 2016
The view from the second-floor office in Weightman Hall unfolds Franklin Field, framed by the legendary track of the Penn Relays.
Pictures on the walls of the office are equally historic, a black and white of the field which was one-tiered in 1920. Another has a collage of Penn greats, with the likes of former NFL players Chuck Bednarik and Joe Valerio, and veteran Holy Cross head coach Tom Gilmore trying to out-gain each other.
On a cabinet are a handful of dark and heavy statues. Grabbing immediate attention is the original Heisman Trophy, the nation’s annual player of the year award named after former Penn player and coach John Heisman. Another is the original Outland Trophy, named after former Penn player John Outland and now the nation’s award for the best interior lineman in college football. Next to it is the Bednarik Award, that going to the country’s top defensive player.
Pretty impressive stuff, especially for the new guy in the office.
Ray Priore has his own history at Penn. After 28 years as an assistant coach on campus, he is about to begin his second season as head coach of the Quakers.
“He’s really inspired our kids,’’ Priore said about Vhito. “When they look at the sidelines and see this young man hanging on and fighting for his life, it really just makes you look inside and say how lucky you are. That message is perhaps the greatest message that you can learn through athletics."
The season opens Saturday, 5 p.m. against Lehigh at Franklin Field.
He has already become part of history, coaching last year’s team to a share of the Ivy League title; that, coming off a 2-8 season. It included road wins over two ranked teams for the first time in program history. This year’s team received the most first-place media votes in a preseason poll, with a solid core of players returning.
No player, however, is as important, or impacting, as Vhito DeCapria.
DeCapria was first to be named captain last season. When he arrived on campus he was coming off 40 consecutive days of chemotherapy treatment. He was 3½ years-old.
“As much as we’ve impacted him, he’s inspired us ten-fold,’’ Priore said one recent morning. “He’s really a heart-of-gold little guy.’’
Vhito is also framed in a collage on the wall, interacting with the team that adopted him through a program called The Friends of Jaclyn Foundation.
A charitable organization, “Friends’’ was created to raise public awareness of pediatric brain tumors, with funds used to improve the quality of life for children.
As head coach, Priore was able to get on board with a program that now includes more than 700 collegiate and scholastic athletic teams who have adopted kids throughout the country.
Quite coincidentally, the program was started by a former college football teammate of Priore’s when they played at the University of Albany. Priore contacted Dennis Murphy when he was named head coach in December of ’14. Vhito’s family, from Jersey Shore, Pa., rented in the city when he was receiving treatment at the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania (CHOP).
Vhito frequently visited the team and last season actually traveled with them to the Harvard game. Penn of course won. The cancer is now in remission.
Priore knew about “Friends’’ from his brother Chuck, the coach at Stony Brook whose team was already on board.
Murphy’s daughter Jaclyn was diagnosed with a tumor at age nine. Her recreation lacrosse coach asked if he minded she reached out to friends on the Northwestern University women’s lacrosse team. They began to call, sent Wildcats gear and texted. Jaclyn told her father that her hospital roommate should get a team as well.
Jacklyn is now 21.
The program is similar to others, such as, “Be The Match,’’ a bone marrow registry including college sports teams across the country. Transplants continue to save children with blood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma.
Priore’s program is also part of that, and former Penn football players have been matches.
“He’s really inspired our kids,’’ Priore said about Vhito. “When they look at the sidelines and see this young man hanging on and fighting for his life, it really just makes you look inside and say how lucky you are. That message is perhaps the greatest message that you can learn through athletics. This spurned getting involved in, ‘Uplifting Athletes,’ that raises money for rare diseases. Last year our kids raised $10,000.
“Our ability as a coach, as a teacher, to impact peoples’ lives, is a very powerful thing. We have an opportunity to be on a stage, if you will, to help others out. We have a platform to make a difference.’’
Priore grew up in Long Beach, a barrier island just south of Long Island; once home to the likes of Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Billy Crystal and Billy Joel. Basketball coach Larry Brown graduated from Long Beach High.
Priore and his two brothers, Chuck (oldest) and Frank (youngest) played youth sports, including ice hockey. In the 1970s the New York Rangers held preseason practice in Long Beach, and Priore went to grammar school with the children of Rangers legends Eddie Giacomin and Jean Ratelle, and coach Emile Francis.
Their father coached them in youth football, and both Chuck and Ray wound up playing the game at Albany. Chuck, now 56, played fullback. Ray, 53, was a defensive back. Both were captains.
"I’ve been around a lot of coaches in this journey and I’ve learned a lot. The leaders are the ones that make and develop individuals to, again, carry on life skills after the games are over. Those who make a difference are a direct reflection of their leader, which is their head coach. And that’s Ray in a nut shell.’’
The plan for the middle child, who majored in Business Education, began to crystallize when Chuck became a Graduate Assistant at Albany. Another factor was watching his father commute by train to his job in Manhattan for 30 years.
“To me,’’ Murphy said, “Ray’s a natural-born leader. I think that comes from his family. He’s developing young men to go out in the world and make a difference, and they’re already doing it. I’ve been around a lot of coaches in this journey and I’ve learned a lot. The leaders are the ones that make and develop individuals to, again, carry on life skills after the games are over. Those who make a difference are a direct reflection of their leader, which is their head coach. And that’s Ray in a nut shell.’’
Assistant coaches routinely move seven-eight times or more before getting a shot as a head coach, and Priore did turn down offers. “Penn has been a family,’’ he said. “Why go to a place when you have everything here, right in front of you?’’
His daughter Jenna is now a junior at Penn, having been on campus since being the team’s water girl, ala “Remember the Titans.’ In his free time Priore enjoys golfing – “I’m a hacker; I’d make a good caddie’’ – and still makes trips to Colorado to ski. You can also find him at the beach on days away from the grind.
“You always want to be who you are, and keeping my door open for kids to come and talk has been a great deal of satisfaction. I take a simple approach to the game and understanding that success comes from a lot of different things. Our kids are, as we say, winners in the classroom, winners on the field, and winners in the community,’’ he said. “And that’s what I really want them to really be.’’
Murphy, who lives in Dutchess County, N.Y., said that while more than 700 children have been adopted, 132 lives have been lost.
“You go to a funeral with a small coffin and that puts everything in perspective,’’ Murphy said. “There’s a term in our world that’s called, ‘Gets it.’
"Ray Priore gets it.”